Watching Rebecca Zlotowski’s Planetarium is akin to seeing a filmmaker lost in the thickets of her own vision. A plot thread is introduced, then dropped, while Zlotowski and cowriter Robin Campillo follow another idea, then another, until they deem it necessary to revive an already introduced thread just to remind us of its existence. The film is an utter mess, in other words, so diffuse that nothing really sticks—no themes resonate very deeply, and no emotions sustain long enough to leave us with much to remember after it’s over.
Some of the ideas Zlotowski tries to play with are, to be sure, potentially interesting. Planetarium is a magical-realist period drama set in France in the run-up to World War II, centering around two sisters—Laura (Natalie Portman) and Kate (Lily-Rose Depp) Barlow, both of whom scrape together a living off Kate’s ability to speak to ghosts—and the ambitious French producer, André Korben (Emmanuel Salinger), who aims to capture this supernatural phenomena on film in his bid to shake up what he sees as a stagnating art form.
From that basic storyline, Zlotowski veers off in a hodgepodge of directions. She depicts Laura being groomed to be a movie star, thus allowing us to see Portman assume a variety of iconic poses (a bit of Lillian Gish here, a bit of Marlene Dietrich there), and allowing Planetarium to touch on time-tested “movie about the magic of movies” territory. Laura and Kate’s relationship suggests a modern-day version of Moses and Aaron, with Kate being the Moses-like inarticulate bearer of spiritual truth and Laura the Aaron-like showman trying to sell it to the masses. Both of these characters are afflicted by more mundane concerns, however—principally, trying to make a living, with Laura seeing Korben’s interest as an opportunity to settle down and achieve financial stability. Korben’s single-mindedness in trying to pursue his cinematic passion project offers a classic depiction of artistic obsession, while his willingness to keep his identity as a Polish Jew under wraps eventually comes back to bite him when France gets caught up in the scourge of Nazism.
That would be a lot of thematic territory for even the most narratively obsessed filmmaker to try to tackle in one feature. But while it’s tempting to give Zlotowski credit for ambition, good intentions in this case aren’t enough to cover for incoherent execution. The characters in Planetarium never come off as anything other than ciphers, thus preventing us from ever really becoming invested in their fates. When Laura catches her sister conducting a séance with Korben by herself—the discovery precipitated when she hears moaning noises that sound like a sexual encounter in progress—Zlotowski hardly seems interested in answering whether Laura’s anger is borne of sisterly protection or romantic jealousy (and if it’s the former, it’s never made clear what exactly she’s protecting Kate from). Such superficiality dogs the many themes she tries to handle, with Zlotowski not even evincing any sense of wonder at the existence of ghosts in the first place; it’s merely accepted as a given from the outset, without a semblance of the freshness Olivier Assayas brought to his own ghost story, Personal Shopper, in imagining how such a paranormal phenomenon might operate in the real world.
Perhaps a stronger visual style might have papered over some of the cracks, but Zlotowski and cinematographer Georges Lechaptois present this all-over-the-place tale in a standard prestige-movie gloss that dulls our imagination rather than excites it, which is fatal in a quasi-fantasy like this one. For a film that is in large part about the magic of movies, Planetarium is sorely lacking in its own magic, replaced instead by endless frustration bound to lead many viewers to a sense of profound indifference.
Director: Rebecca Zlotowski
Writer: Rebecca Zlotowski, Robin Campillo
Starring: Natalie Portman, Lily-Rose Depp, Emmanuel Salinger, Amira Casar, Pierre Salvadori, Louis Garrel
Release Date: August 11, 2017
Kenji Fujishima contributes film criticism to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and Village Voice, in addition to Paste. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.