Natalie Portman and Raffey Cassidy on "Vox Lux", #MeToo, Melodrama, and Believability

by William J. Simmons

“The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” -Edgar Allan Poe

Sometimes it is best to start with a cliché to set the scene. It was pouring rain in Los Angeles and I had been up since 4 AM. I interviewed Natalie Portman and Raffey Cassidy on the occasion of the premiere of Vox Lux. In response to my sputtering attempts to wax poetic about women and melodrama, Cassidy said quite offhandedly, “Women have very interesting stories to tell.” The contemporary relevance of this statement did not permeate me until I was on my way home, once I had gotten over the embarrassment of getting my McDonald’s-bag-laden car back from the valet at the Four Seasons. I am noticing a pattern. I once declined tea with Jessica Chastain because there was a rip in the crotch of my pants, an unfortunate faux pas that I have thought about daily for years. That week, I had listened to Vanessa Carlton’s “Carousel” just about nonstop: “And love comes back around again/It’s a carousel, my friend.” That is the function of sentimentality, after all—to convince us, sometimes insincerely, that tragedy begets redemption.

What makes a story interesting, and what makes a woman’s story interesting, and why are women so often the ones whose stories center on tragedy? Cassidy’s statement resonates in a particular timbre for me as a gay man who has sometimes found himself a participant in the gay-cis-male, misogynist fetishization of women’s stories. We call the protagonists of these stories “queer icons” and their mythology of suffering becomes something with which we identify. Think of Feud: Bette and Joan, for instance, or, most recently, A Star is Born, in which a woman is tacitly punished for a man’s suicide (only a little while after the same thing happened to Ariana Grande). But Lady Gaga put in her time with the gays, so we let it slide. For me, it is A Streetcar Named Desire. I remember reading the play in high school and getting in shouting matches with my classmates about Blanche’s ultimately likeability. Suffering women become a locus of identification, a body on which one can project one’s doubts and hopes and lust and hysterical dreams that lie outside the confines of what is considered a normal emotional response. An affinity for women on screen and on the page becomes a way for some of us to escape the patriarchy while still reaffirming it, since it concretizes the assumption that women and non-male individuals exist purely through the fantasy of others, without being given the self-actualization that cis men enjoy.   

In a perhaps related context, we have heard many stories from women this year in the wake of #MeToo and the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford. It is important to linger on the word “story,” because it implies an element of belief or investment. Sometimes to call something a story is to belittle it, and at others it is to transform the mundane into the extraordinary. It follows that there has been a renewed discourse of believability with regard to sexual violence. Dr. Ford was lauded for being believable, as if to say that being brave enough to recount her story of abuse was not enough to beget action, or, at the very least, sympathy. Likewise, #MeToo has engendered highly visible instances of women and non-cis-men being assaulted again with the onus of not only having to relay a story, but also being forced to provide sufficient proof to convince a patriarchal system that is committed to sustaining its own power.

Likewise, melodrama works to manufacture belief. In some ways, we are constantly asked by Vox Lux to assess the truth or relatability of the main character’s story. Celeste, the film’s protagonist (played as a youth by Cassidy, and as an adult by Portman), survives a school shooting and becomes a pop star, only to be hobbled by addiction and self-doubt and a fear of stasis. My boyfriend said of the film that it reminded him of an endless hallway, which is, after all, what melodrama does in its insistence that just around the corner could be the door that leads to a better life—not unlike Carlton’s “Carousel.”

That introspective and cramped quality my boyfriend noticed perhaps mirrors Celeste’s self-obsession. Many reviews have called her narcissistic and hateful. Any identification we might have with Celeste must be purely ironic, it seems. One review suggests that Vox Lux represents “a mockery of the idea that one could find comfort in a medium so compromised as the Top 40.” However, few among us have not found meaning in something compromised or materialistic or tacky (epithets often associated with cultural forms deemed feminine) in order to survive the crushing weight of hetero-patriarchal culture and taste. In fact, in one of the film’s most beautiful, and, indeed, comforting moments, young Celeste muses: “That’s what I love about pop music. I don’t want people to have to think too hard. I just want them to feel good.” An attachment to something collective, like Top 40, is often about survival, especially for non-cis-male individuals (the fact that countless gays before me also listened to Judy Garland in the shower and cried is a source of pride). This connects to Portman’s assessment of Celeste’s fractured identity: “There is a splitting of the self, because there is a self that is communally created.” Women and queer people deal intimately with this intersection, wherein one’s body exists both for the individual and for the collective, caught somewhere between paradoxical expectations. Nowhere is this truer than in the context of #MeToo, in which many women and non-cis-male individuals emerge from their individual struggles and (willingly or unwillingly) interweave with a widening narrative of struggle.  

Thus struck by the confluence of #MeToo and two movies in 2018 about tragic female pop stars, I approached Vox Lux with a desire to understand how such a narrative might resonate in this moment. In a typically pretentious fashion (I made sure to mention to Portman that I also went to Harvard), I asked Portman to respond to a quote from Lauren Berlant’s introduction to Compassion: The Culture and Politics of an Emotion: “Susan Sontag argues that compassion is what you feel when you feel impotent, overwhelmed by the enormity of painful spectacle; but one could also say the opposite: that when suffering is presented to you in a way that invites the gift of your compassion, compassion can feel like the apex of affective agency among strangers.”

Portman’s response is telling: “I’m not sure that the goal is always to feel compassion, because it doesn’t mean that you have to like everything that someone does, or feel bad for everything they feel bad about. With Celeste, I don’t think you feel compassion for her necessarily, but you might be able to put yourself in her shoes. And to share that collectively, to sit in a theater and practice caring about someone else’s life is, to me, is the most social good a film can do.” The question then becomes, whose stories beget empathy, and who is empowered to tell those stories? For whom does empathy lead to action? What kinds of people do we expect to suffer so that we might learn to be empathetic? When non-male suffering is largely filtered through the imaginations of men (gay or straight), which emotions have we been trained to offer them in response, and what coalitions do such representations allow us to build?

So, we might recall Ava DuVernay’s assertion that “If your dream only includes you, it’s too small” and consider the ramifications of amplifying heretofore marginalized voices so that we might not only learn to see differently, but also to feel and imagine differently. The issue is certainly expanding representation, but perhaps more pernicious is patriarchy’s ability to close off outlets of the imagination and restrict stories that might offer a moment to repair oneself and others. Our relationship to this opportunity for healing through narrative is, of course, highly individualized and rooted in our particular oppressions. The key becomes placing one’s own suffering or privilege in an adjacent space to another’s, without usurping the uniqueness of your or their experience. So, if the most I have to worry about is embarrassing myself in front of Jessica Chastain and Natalie Portman or the valet at the Four Seasons, I surmise that I have a lot of room to help forge that empathetic adjacency. Or perhaps not taking up more space than you are due is the greatest virtue.

Written by William J. Simmons

Imagery: Stills from “Vox Lux”