LFF 2016: Planetarium Review


Planetarium begins in a promising, intriguing fashion; dressed in a tuxedo and gearing up a nightclub audience for a night of supernatural entertainment, Natalie Portman’s commanding presence immediately demands attention. Portman plays showman Laura, one half of the American sister séance act The Barlow Sisters, and her confident, expressive performance is one of Planetarium’s most alluring features. Unfortunately, from here, things quickly deteriorate and a mystifying, confused narrative follows. Balancing clairvoyant sisters with the glamour of the film industry and a dose of pre-war anxiety, Rebecca Zlotowski’s third film is a muddled, inscrutable jumble of ideas and images.

Set in the mid-1930s between the two great wars of the 20th century, Laura and her younger sister Kate (Lily-Rose Depp), who can communicate with the dead, are vagabonds performing their flashy supernatural show across Europe. The pair are desperate to find a home in an increasingly unstable continent and find their temporary savour in eccentric, wealthy film producer and spiritualist Andre Korben (Emmanuel Salinger). Korben takes the girls under his wing, allowing them to stay in his decadent house in Paris and, after some screen tests, he hires them to star in his new film, “Deadly Apparition.” Korben becomes obsessed with capturing a real-life spirit on film and thus proving their existence. His fixation soon splits the two sisters apart and eventually leads to his own downfall as the beginning of WW2 inches closer.

Zlotowski proved her worth with her last work, Grand Central, but Planetarium marks a disappointing step backwards for the female director. The film chugs along at a dreamily languid pace and although Zlotowski arouses some interesting themes she never really fleshes the disparate strands together into a coherent narrative whole. There’s also a dissatisfying amount of character growth and it’s never really revealed what motivates the pair to make a living out of communicating with the dead. Consequently, there’s a severe lack of emotional resonance to be had with The Barlow Sisters’ plight, despite charming, adept performances from both Portman and Depp and a compellingly off-kilter turn from Salinger.

The plot is simply too scattered and unfocused to sustain any sort of engagement with the story. An aggravatingly anticlimactic conclusion caps off the film in a particularly dull, unmemorable manner. But Planetarium is slightly redeemed on the back of its lush set design and exquisitely gorgeous cinematography by Georges Lechaptois, who uses graceful pastels and warm shades to beautiful effect.

However, if you’re looking for an enigmatic, captivating and genuine ghost story check out Olivier Assayas’ vastly superior Personal Shopper which is also playing at the festival, as there’s not much to be gained from this unmoving, meandering mess.