If it's possible to be completely blown away by a movie and simultaneously to think that it's the most exhaustingly pretentious thing, then that's exactly how I feel about Vox Lux. The second film directed by indie art film actor Brady Corbet feels very much like "film directed by an indie art film actor" would do, and it is chockablock with little touches that just absolutely ooze calculated smugness. Here is a movie wherein the very font of the opening credits made me roll my eyes a little bit, and that was before it turned out the movie was going to open with a full credit scroll. Among other little things, like the film's use of chapter titles presented in very tiny white type against very black backgrounds, or very big things, like the fact that the entire plot is about the relationship between terrorist activities, public mourning, and the pop music industry.

It's the kind of thing that would be intolerable if it wasn't being done really well, and fuck me if Vox Lux hasn't been done well. Very well indeed, and while I think that Corbet would probably a bit of a bore to discuss art with, he's got an unmistakable cinematic sensibility. His film is a cryptic, angular thing, all made out of little broken pieces of time and space, presenting a character study of a fundamentally empty character entirely through the surfaces she surrounds herself with. It's a movie that desperately wants to be found unlikable and cold, mapping the protagonist's steady bleaching-out of her own warm feelings, and it mostly succeeds; "how good the film is at being hard and mean" is a difficult sentence to construe as a compliment, but that's exactly where we are.

The script, also by Corbet, broadly takes the form of two acts with a prologue and an epilogue. In 1999, the high school-aged Montgomery sisters, Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) and Eleanor (Stacy Martin) survive a school shooting on Staten Island; Celeste takes a bullet to the throat but miraculously survives. Eleanor is moved to write a song in tribute to their lost schoolmates and the recovering Celeste sings it at the community's memorial service. The song breaks out into the world at large, making Celeste a viral star before viral videos were even a thing, and she's quickly snapped up by a crude, chain-smoking manager with no name (Jude Law) who crafts her into a sensational pop star. Eighteen years later, Celeste (played in her adult guise by Natalie Portman) is about to go on tour in support of her sixth album, while coping with her own sullen teenage daughter Albertine (Cassidy again), while violent tragedies chase her, most recently an apparently religiously-motivated mass shootings perpetrated by killers wearing masks based on one of her music videos.

It is a greedy, hungry film, biting off huge chunks of everything and swallowing them down without even trying to chew. You would think, from that little plot synopsis - which doesn't even mention the cliffhanger ending to the first half, where Celeste and Ellie brainstorm the writing of a 9/11 tribute song - that this will be a film about the mercenary commercialization of tragedy. And it's certainly not not that. It's not not a lot of things. But there's only so much time in a film that runs to around 114 minutes, packed very densely, and there's also the matter of the film's Faustian narrative, plus its diagnosis of the contemporary pop music industry, ending in a 15-minute concert sequence that exemplifies the candy-coated appeal of dance pop as perceived by a filmmaker who obviously doesn't like pop music at all, but finds it fascinating that other people do.

Mostly, though, it's a character piece about living through history. I mentioned it's pretentious, yes? Because this is where it gets really pretentious. The film's narrative is an attempt to understand how a 14-year-old with talent and a big heart becomes a 31-year-old drunkenly coasting on her talent and barely succeeding at simulating human emotions, and its answer is basically "because being alive in the 21st Century is fucking exhausting and we've all agreed to pretend it's not". Corbet's script frames all of this as an act of reflection, a bedtime story recited to us in the calming voice of Willem Dafoe, positioning Celeste's life and the tragedies she bears witness to as historical events rather than moments in the present. Meanwhile, the very unconventional cinematography (by Lol Crawley) and editing (by Matthew Hannam) break all of those moments into subjective little pieces, making the simple act of perceiving events an act of willpower: for us because it is that kind of act for Celeste. The combined result of both of these things is a fascinating, if at times inconclusive character study of a woman whose attempts to personalise events that have national weight makes her an icon at the cost of her ability to function as an individual.

The twin performances at the heart of all this weird stylistic and structural fragmentation are both wonderful in their own ways, though one is infinitely more stable. Cassidy has been hanging around for a few years now, and had a pretty substantial role in the failed 2015 tentpole Tomorrowland, but everything about this feels like a sui generis star-is-born-from-out-of-nowhere turn. There's terrifying commitment in her beleaguered posture and line readings, and her drained way of staring through the other characters is probably the best character detail Vox Lux has to offer. It's easy to understand that this is a young woman who has Seen Things, been torn apart and traumatised in ways it's best not to think about, and the visible distress in Cassidy's performance helps to explain why this trauma would manifest in such self-negating ways that it would transform her into Portman's blowsy monster. I can absolutely understand why Portman's performance is divisive: her Celeste doesn't really feel like a human at all. She combines exaggerated, fast movement with an even more out-there version of her Jackie accent (incidentally, that film and this film would make an effective double feature on the theme of national mourning), sort of New Jersey by way of Mars. It's a big, ludicrous performance of a woman who has allowed a big persona to stand in for the lack of a private personality, and it never strikes me as Portman giving a bad performance, but of Celeste doing so. A victim of an industry that's all about constructed artifice, at a point in human history where studied irony and disinterest in historical context are privileged, especially in that industry, Portman's Celeste is less a parody of a gone-to-seed pop star than a tragedy; she's so good at controlling surfaces that surfaces are all that's left, and everything about the acting and the crystalline formalism contribute to that brittle, fragile sense of hollowness. It's a hugely cynical film on top of everything else, but if you manage to end up on the right wavelength, it's the most energizing, enthralling kind of cynicism.