Planetarium is Mess, Yet Fascinating

Directed by Rebecca Zlotowski
Ad Vitam Distribution, 106 minutes, NR. In English and French.

Planetarium is a pre- and post-Holocaust film. Almost no reviewers got that.  But for once it’s not because they’re ethnically insensitive; it’s because the script—written by Director Rebecca Zlotowski and Robin Campillo —is a shambles. The film scored badly among audiences and I’d agree it’s often a head-scratcher. Yet I also recommend you might want to try it, so hear me out.

The disjointed narrative centers on sisters Laura (Natalie Portman) and Kate Barlow (Lily-Rose Depp). They are spiritualists on a not-so-successful barnstorming tour of southern France in the late 1930s. It’s a pretty slick act, though, and film director André Korben (Emmanuel Salinger) is beguiled by the Barlows—Laura for her mesmerizing perfect-for-the-screen countenance and Kate because she might really be spiritually gifted. Korben soon has both sisters ensconced at his seaside mansion, casts Laura in a movie, and has private (and unknown-to-Laura) séances with Kate to connect him to his deceased wife. I will say only that sometimes those séances are exceedingly pleasurable and other times André feels as if he is being choked to death.

Korben has another agenda: his film empire is hemorrhaging money and he is aware that the French, who invented cinema, have not only surrendered the market to Hollywood, they have also lost their ability to astonish or enlighten. Zlotkowski simply lacks the skill to connect these two threads, so let me flash two keys. The first comes when Laura detects a slight hint of an accent in Korben’s French; the second comes in the observation that ghosts need the living, not vice versa. You can probably connect the dots if I remind you that after Germany conquered France in 1940, it was divided in two: Hitler’s armies occupied the north, and the south—led from the city of Vichy—set up a government that collaborated with the Nazis.

Please forgive the history lesson. It’s necessary because Planetarium doesn’t explain (or anticipate) any of this. If you know what comes next, the camera angles exaggerating physical features, words scrawled on mirrors, and haloed vignettes presage the coming roundup of French Jews. You’ll then realize this isn’t just a run-on-the-mill film about paranormal things that go bump in the night. You might also come to suspect that when it comes to storytelling, neither Zlotkowski nor Campillo know what comes after “Once upon a time….”  

If I also tell you that it will be a while before we should use Lily-Rose Depp’s name in the same sentence as the word "actress" and that the film’s title is only tangentially relevant, you’ll probably wonder what could possibly redeem Planetarium. One thing, surely, is Natalie Portman. Not only is she fully bilingual in her role, she so thoroughly transforms herself into the very essence of a 1930s film star that one reviewer suggested she was born 75 years too soon. She even looks a bit like blend of Marlene Dietrich and Ava Gardner.  

Let’s stay with how the film looks, because the other true star of the film is cinematographer George Lechaptois. It is truly one of the more fascinating films of recent memory insofar as its moods are delivered visually. It might make little sense, but to my eyes Planetarium was like a mash of Cabaret, A Ghost Story, a gauzy dream, and a live action graphic novel. The character of André Korben is based upon that of real-life director Bernard Nathan, a very controversial figure who was nonetheless an innovator. It is tempting to think that Zlotkowski’s scattershot narrative is a backhand nod at what happened to French film after World War Two: "New Wave" directors emerged who emphasized visual impact over narrative coherence.

Then again, I may be giving far more credit than is due. Even if this was Zlotkowski’s intent, no one will confuse her with Goddard, Resnais, or Varda. Still, there are wonderful possibilities embedded within Planetarium struggling to come out. It dazzles the eyes, Portman is amazing, and—as bad as it was—I mused over it for a long time. As we watched, my wife asked me several times if any of the move made sense. Each time I replied, “I’m not sure, but it’s fascinating.” I admit that’s an odd recommendation. My only defense is that stimulating and profound things sometimes emerge from botched efforts.

Rob Weir    

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