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Portraits of an Artist As a Young Woman: ‘Vox Lux,’ ‘A Star Is Born,’ ‘Suspiria,’ and the Perils of Performing While Female

Three recent films interrogate the art, fame, and morals of women performers. They were also all directed by men.

“The boy who did this to me listened to music like yours,” says Celeste, played by Raffey Cassidy as a 14-year-old pop star in training in Brady Corbet’s new film, Vox Lux. Celeste is referring to a scar behind the metal choker around her neck, the remains of a bullet that almost destroyed her spine. She is in bed speaking to a man credited as The Musician (Micheál Richardson); it is 2001, and they are in Stockholm, where Celeste is working with a Max Martinesque producer and The Musician is on tour with his pseudo-metal sensitive-screamo band. “And how does that make you feel?” he asks. “I don’t like to think about it,” Celeste responds.

The boy who did this to her is the classmate who, in the opening moments of the film, kills many students and teachers in an attack that references the 1999 Columbine school shootings. Like the teenagers who perpetrated that real-life attack, this character has done so while dressed in significance — they wore leather trench coats, while he wears a cropped fur jacket, expertly applied sparkly smokey eye, and contacts made to look like blown-out black pupils — designed to confuse and terrify anyone who looks at him. His outfit could reference the glam goth of Marilyn Manson, the real-life musician who was briefly blamed for what happened at Columbine, but not The Musician, who has a more down-to-earth pop morbidity. Did her classmate listen to The Musician? Does that matter? Celeste, it seems, had some sort of relationship with the teenage shooter — when he enters their homeroom with a machine gun, she tries and fails to negotiate for the lives of everyone else in their class, and they speak to each other in the practiced tone of two children performing as adults for no one but each other. (This is now the second film in which Cassidy’s voice features as having an angelic or hypnotic power over a violent teenage boy, the other being 2017’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer.) Celeste, after being shot, is saved only by coincidence or grace, and her tragedy becomes the condition of her celebrity. For the rest of the film we follow her rise to fame, always accessorizing with some sort of protective collar long after it is medically necessary. She looks like the girl with the green ribbon from the classic Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, or more recently, Carmen Maria Machado’s adaptation, The Husband Stitch — convinced she needs a band of fabric to hold her head on her neck.

Along with A Star Is Born and Suspiria, Vox Lux is one of the three films released this year featuring women who are performers performing as women performers. Though the three movies exist in genres so different they might as well be in separate dimensions — a realistic romantic drama, a horror fashion, and an expressionistic backstage comedy — they share certain beliefs. Two of them are about art as a form of Satanic worship, and one is A Star Is Born. Two use expensive loafers with no-show socks as a clue that a male music executive is a bad guy. Two have scores by notable composers (Scott Walker for Vox Lux, Thom Yorke for Suspiria); two have pop stars writing soundtracks full of bops (Sia for Vox Lux and Lady Gaga for A Star Is Born). All three rest on the significant artistic contributions of the women at their center, as singers, dancers, and actresses. All three were written and directed by men. All three could be described as being about the limits of glamour, or the truest definition of it: that it is evil refracted by beauty. As a pattern, these are either common qualities without consequence, or with too much. What does the gender of the performer and the gender of the director matter to a movie made at this moment? It is an evaluation that has little to do with caliber and everything to do with meaning: not Are these good movies? but Are these movies good? Are they good for women? Do they have good ideas about women? Do they think women are good? Perhaps it makes sense, then, that they all also share a preoccupation with whether art itself can be good, or exist without immoral compromise.

Vox Lux suggests Celeste is evil, like fame itself. Since the press saw them write and perform a sweet, sincere song in memoriam to the victims of the school shooting, Celeste and her sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) have been put into the pop star machine, a symbol of America’s eager commodification of redemption. Don’t think about it too hard — the voice-over, narrated by Willem Dafoe, will explicitly tell you when 9/11 changed the world, or how pop music is a cover for capitalistic nihilism, or any of the other many ideas the film introduces about the nature of fame and trauma. By the time we see Celeste’s scar, 18 years have passed and it has faded to be nothing of note on Natalie Portman, who plays the artist as a maniacal and unpredictable 31-year-old, so famous she has no chance of being good. As the grown-up Celeste, her Staten Island dialect is thick and fuzzy, her teen affectations heightened to a very adult caricature. The second half of the film follows her on a single day — she is about to begin a huge comeback tour for her latest album, and a terrorist attack that may or may not reference her musical career has just happened on a beach in Central Europe. We watch her spar with The Manager (Jude Law, who very realistically switches from sucking on a cigarette to sucking on a vape as the decades turn over), with journalists, with her family, as they try to address this calamity as a crisis of publicity. My favorite moment is when Portman, en route to the show wearing a purple pleather jacket and the skinniest stilettos, demands to pull over and stop at the beach; too high to stand up straight but trying her best, she moves her legs like a coked-out Bambi.

For Portman, Vox Lux rounds out a trilogy of films in which a woman is driven insane because of the attention their ambition attracts. I saw Jackie (2016) specifically because a friend of mine described it as “a camp film about PTSD” — that also perfectly applies to 2010’s Black Swan, and now to Lux. Her performance recalls Gena Rowlands in Opening Night, particularly in one scene where Portman has to be dragged by the arms through the backstage of a stadium arena. They share the same frenetic self-absorption, one that always threatens total destruction of herself and sucks in the people who keep loving her, despite knowing better. Most terrifying of all is how we see the steely core of these characters, how committed these women are to their show, which, if they have anything to say about it, will always go on. Sia, who wrote the songs that Cassidy and Portman perform, has spoken about her struggle to extricate her alcoholism from her creativity, to make music that doesn’t believe in the myth that addiction fuels art.

Corbet was formerly an actor, notable for his performance in Michael Haneke’s 2007 English-language remake of Funny Games. He and Michael Pitt played two teenage boys who torture and murder a family in a manner both random and rote. It is a parable about how audiences participate in passive cruelty, indicting bloodlust as a trait by cultivating bloodthirst as an art form, which seems similar to whatever Vox Lux is hinting at. I happened to attend a screening that included a Q&A with Corbet. He explained he wanted the film to have the feeling of sporadic and frenetic Apple News notifications. “You look at it in the morning, and it’s this juxtaposition of there’s a shooting, a domestic act of terrorism, Ariana Grande cut off her ponytail, the president said something asinine on Twitter.” I was unsure of what to make of these examples — the overlap between celebrity and politics have been exhaustively covered in the past, say, 50 years of American presidents, and it has been less than two years since the terrorist attack at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester. An audience member asked whether Corbet thought Celeste was a good pop star, and he responded, almost on impulse, by turning the question around: “Do you?” After a pause he reconsidered, and answered that he hoped the answer was yes. They had, he said, worked really hard to make her good.

Whether or not the music is good preoccupies the characters of A Star Is Born. The film is the fourth remake of the 1937 original, which counted Dorothy Parker as one of the screenwriters; the 1976 version was a vehicle for Barbara Streisand, and cowritten by John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion. As meta-commentary, this level of literary celebrity was famously well versed in the compromises between art and commerce. Every version has, to some extent, relied on the same tension between artistic vanity and practicality to varying effects — the audience is expected to apply their own understanding of the real famous people playing the fake famous people. The star being born takes on a different meaning if it is Judy Garland, or if it is Shraddha Kapoor in Aashiqui 2, the 2013 Bollywood remake, or our most current iteration, Lady Gaga. The narrative construct of Born is the same as the real-life construct that assigns celebrities their origin stories, and accordingly, their identities. Even since the film has been released we’ve watched Gaga update her story, with the endlessly replayable sound bite about how if there’s just one person in the room who believes in you and so on and so forth.

As Jackson Maine, Bradley Cooper directs himself to be a good character who does bad things. As Ally, Lady Gaga is a singer untried and untested by the moral compromises the music industry will demand of her. Whether or not she can maintain her goodness, and whether or not Cooper can overcome his bad behavior, is the point at which their romance is most tested. Another film about fame as a never-ending source of trauma, it is an origin story that ends Jackson’s story with what will be Lady Gaga’s beginning.

In the beginning of their romance, what they share is equal parts genius and labor — they are both very talented, and they both want to work very hard. The scene in which they spontaneously write the film’s anthem, “Shallow,” while sitting, drunk, outside a grocery store parking lot, is so sweet and silly. As Ally and Jackson, their love affair speeds through every step, relying on lyrics instead of words to communicate with each other. I was reminded of one of my favorite passages by John Berger, the art critic, when he wrote about Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock: “The two of them were, in part, painting for each other; to see each other’s surprise. It was a way of communicating, of touching or being touched.” Krasner and Pollock, too, had a codependent and almost mutually destructive relationship, marked by jealousy and addiction. Hearing these stories again and again carries a complicated satisfaction in repetition — it hits the notes we want to hear all the more for how much we expect them.

In the same way, Cooper’s A Star Is Born relies on an understanding of music as familiar as any pop song. As the wannabe-cowboy-slash-rock-star, Jackson is convinced that authenticity can and should override rhythm, or that a songwriting principle that values pleasure is one that is essentially distrustful. This debate has played out in various parts of music criticism, the so-called poptimism-vs.-rockism divide, and it struck me as the falsest note in the film. Jackson Maine probably wouldn’t have read Carl Wilson’s 2007 book Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste, but someone should have sent Cooper a copy. I loved the scene in which Jackson and Ally argue over her song “Why Did You Do That,” which is, admittedly, very likable but not very good — certainly nowhere as good as “Bad Romance,” and in being so thin the film seems unfairly biased toward the view Jackson takes, that Ally has somehow sold out by writing and performing an enjoyable song. They are too angry and too drunk to make much sense. In any case, they are representing a very recognizable divide, between women who make art and men who think they know better — that critique is romance and love is a question of taste.

While A Star Is Born is concerned with origins, Suspiria is a film against originality. Though it exists only because of Dario Argento’s 1977 original, it is best watched not as a prequel, sequel, or remake, but a dreamy allusion more concerned with the elemental emotions of Suspiria than the machinations of the story.

In Luca Guadagnino’s version, Dakota Johnson is Susie, a Mennonite woman from Ohio who comes to a famed Berlin ballet academy to study under Madame Blanc (one of the three roles played by Tilda Swinton). Blanc is a choreographer who recalls the characteristic eccentricity and severity of Pina Bausch, though, as necessitates a character we soon learn is an embodiment of vicious evil, lacking in Bausch’s humanity and humor. There are some more obvious reimaginings of Argento’s film, like Susie showing up to the academy at the same time another young woman is fleeing — in this version, that student is played by Chloë Grace Moretz, who heads straight to her Freudian analyst. It was disappointing to see the best line of the film — “If they find me here, they won’t hesitate. They’ll hollow me out and eat my cunt on a plate” — delivered by Moretz, since in her performance her manic declarations of witches really do sound fake. I hate to identify with a therapist who believes his clients are hysterics. Credited under a different name and hiding under about a thousand layers of prosthetics, Swinton as Moretz’s psychiatrist stands in for the banal evil of bystanders, the liberal rationalizations that allow evil to make its final moves.

Guadagnino has always made movies that remind me of how fashion magazines plan their editorials — collections of images pinned to moodboards, references piled on top of references. He create scenes of great beauty, and then asks the audience to bring their own emotional stories. His Suspiria is about where evil comes from, and how it moves from generation to generation in the uses and abuses of memory. While watching Suspiria I suspected Guadagnino made a moodboard that just said “HISTORY!” in all caps, the iconic typeface set on top of images of Berlin in the 1970s. These are simple and superficial references to the depths of trauma, aesthetic understandings of the aftershocks to genocidal war in Europe. As a result, Suspiria is best watched not for the big picture but his devotion to small, perfect details. He is, delightfully, a director who thinks to answer the question of which witches will mop the floor after a bloodletting ritual; he knows how strange and soothing it is to observe the wicked women of the dance academy conduct a telepathic debate about who their new leader should be, while outwardly preparing the day’s breakfast in a handsomely rustic kitchen; he knows how much I like scenes of dancers in their opaque tights and knit sweaters warming up for the day’s rehearsals, how pleased I was to see that Johnson’s long-braided wig stayed on her head even during the most vigorous dance scenes, how much I loved to watch Mia Goth walk through the Berlin winter in her fur-trimmed coats and heeled boots, how much my feminism rests on the belief that women can be and often are evil. But then I am also very shallow.

The climactic scene features another character recognizable from the original, Helena Markos (Swinton again). Here Guadagnino and Swinton show themselves as being more than willing to go as far into the grotesque as they will into the gorgeous. “This isn’t vanity!” Markos screams during the aforementioned bloodletting when her motives are questioned, to which I almost said out loud to the screen: Girl, we know. Swinton’s skin suit makes her look like Jabba the Hutt in the last stages of 18th-century syphilis. Part of what makes it so funny is that the film is, itself, about vanity, as well as creative theft. As the ingenue, Johnson proves herself by dancing Swinton’s choreography as well  as— better than — Swinton’s character ever did. Later, she’ll prove herself to be as bad as — if not worse than — any witch in the entire place. Her skill was our first sign that she is up to no good.

In the process of making this film, Guadagnino frequently referenced women who made art in the 1970s, such as Judy Chicago — was Moretz mentioning her cunt on a plate as an allusion to Chicago’s Dinner Party? — the photographer Francesca Woodman, whose double-exposed self-portraits presented the artist as both a body and a ghost, and Ana Mendieta, whose work as an earth and performance artist is haunted by the conditions of her violent death. Mendieta’s work was the most immediately obvious when the film began its promotions — two shots from the first trailer were, to the many who pay close attention to what Mendieta did in life, so close to her 1973 Rape Scene and the “Silueta” series that they could have been reproductions. Reference is one thing; theft is another. Her estate, represented by the New York–based Galerie Lelong & Co., sued on Mendieta’s behalf, on the grounds that permissions for her work are strictly granted to art historical context and not for commercial usage. Without the lawsuit, Mendieta’s influence was, once again, in danger of being erased by a man’s story. Amazon reached an undisclosed settlement with the Mendieta estate around the same time, and Guadagnino does not comment on the case.

As Hazel Cills wrote in her essay about Suspiria, there’s a constant “number-crunching” happening in the movie industry — observations of inequality, in any arena but especially in contemporary American culture, are frequently reprimanded with a direction to prove it or lose it. By focusing on who made the movie in the most obvious sense — who directed or who wrote — we forget that actresses and other artists are so much more than what Cills calls “a passive interpreter of a man’s vision,” rather than acknowledging how transformative a woman’s work can be in front of the camera. And yet noticing the patterns is not enough to break the habit. In Vox Lux, fame is a Faustian bargain. In A Star Is Born, performance is the start of soulless practicalities. In Suspiria, it is an ecstatic fall from grace. That is to say — abandon all hope, ye who enter the cinema. It’s all vanity. Each of these films prize, in their own way, the artist above all else — a song needs a voice to sing it; choreography is nothing without dancers who learn the steps; fame has its own economy — but the rewards remain with the person who gets to say cut.

The rating of art so often flatters those who already have power, and deliberately does not see those without power until they’re wanted or needed. That is possibly why so many of these movies about women and their art rely on such familiar expectations — in which a white woman’s suffering is almost always a default condition of fame, money is corrupt and art is too pure to compete, beauty seduces and that’s why it can’t be trusted, in that the movies already have something to prove so their scenes add up to a point rather than a story. Like the girl with the green ribbon, the ideas are quickly unraveled. They were only ever held together with string.

Haley Mlotek is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn.

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