As featured in Indie Entertainment Magazine.
There is a rule of thumb in cinema and it’s this: filmmakers get their jollies by making movie about making movies. And Planetarium by Rebecca Zlotowski is no exception. With award winning films Belle Epine and Grand Central under her belt, Zlotowski is no lightweight when it comes to good filmmaking. And in this film she swings for the fences.
Mildly inspired by the Fox sisters, Planetarium centers around Natalie Portman and Lily-Rose Depp as the sisters Laura and Kate Barlow. Set between the two World Wars, the sisters wander through European nightclubs and smoke filled cabarets performing seances and stoking the fervor of spiritualism that is alive in France. While their seances aren’t entirely convincing, to the audience that is willing to suspend disbelief, a mystical experience can be had. One such participant is French film producer André Korben (Emmanuel Salinger) who is so touched by his experience that he becomes obsessed with trying to capture it on film.
Planetarium is a work of metafiction. It is spinning a narrative while simultaneously commenting on the filmmaking process itself. But rather than spilling its guts and telling you exactly what is being said, Zlotowski makes you work for it.
The story of the film orbits around two narrative goals: make a film about seances and film a legitimate apparition to stun audiences. The Barlow sisters, who form a two man act, become divided in this process. Laura (Portman) has stage presence with the capacity to captivate an audience and so she is cast in Korben’s movie. Kate (Depp), on the other hand, is the one with the gift of spiritualism and caught up in Korben’s obsession with capturing a spirit on film.
In playing with these themes, Zlotowski is aiming to show the real dangers of filmmaking: the theft of a soul. Perhaps it’s a myth, but when the first cameras were invented, ancient cultures were reticent to pose for them, feeling that the picture robbed them of their spirit.
Planetarium is aware of this as Laura becomes a burgeoning starlet. There is a moment between her and the director where she confesses the shame she felt acting. It is a vulnerable moment that Portman excels at. Whereas Kate’s story is literally about capturing a spirit on film.
I’ll be honest, this was not a perfect film. It struggled with pacing and editing. But Zlotowski succeeded in getting great performances from the actors. Depp, who felt detached and aloof, channeled a character who felt like she towed the line between life and death with regularity. And with an Academy Award under her belt, Portman brought her full talent to the board (and she also delivered over half her lines in French!).
Likewise, the cinematography and use of imagery is on point. Using seances to weave a commentary on filmmaking? Brilliantly done. Similarly, the music has just the right mixture of erie, emotion, and tension. It never distracted from the story and only felt like it elevated and underscored what was on screen.
As a director, Zlotowski feels more like a poet than a novelist; interested in playing with themes and ideas rather than nailing down a solid plot. Making a cinematic novel is comparatively easy. But making cinematic poetry is downright difficult. Zlotowski chose the harder task, and for that, she should be commended. In an age where mainstream movies are increasingly becoming more formulaic, it is important that we have directors like Zlotowski experimenting and coming up with new ideas. Given enough time and experience, I believe Zlotowski could find herself ranked with other cinematic poets like Malick or Aronofsky.
But as it is, Planetarium is certainly worth a watch for those who enjoy poetic metafiction.