Movie Review: ‘Planetarium’

Review by Jacquelin Hipes

My local high school had a planetarium, and every year from kindergarten through fourth grade our class would go for a visit. The lights would dim, the seats would recline, and two dozen kids would stare in wonder as stars and planets whizzed by. No matter how fantastic these visits were there was always a lesson behind them, some sort of direction guiding all of those projections on the domed ceiling. It’s that sense of purpose that is lacking in Rebecca Zlotowski’s Planetarium, a film that juggles several promising concepts yet fails to fully capitalize on any of them.

Natalie Portman and Lily-Rose Depp play Laura and Kate Barlow, American sisters touring Europe as spiritual mediums. It is a few years before the outbreak of World War II and times are difficult for the young women and their audience members alike. Bookings for private séances are thin, with possible benefactors darting out of the theater as soon as the show has ended. However, deliverance might be found in André Korben (Emmanuel Salinger), the owner of a French film studio who has a moving experience during a private session at his home. Korben wants to film their routine with the hope of recording a genuine supernatural phenomenon; in doing so, he also wants to bring French film techniques into the modern age. An initial screen test fails to produce the desired results but marks Laura as a cinematic ingénue. Subsequently the pair move into his home and, as Korben employs increasingly sophisticated means of detecting the spirits they claim to contact, his relationship with the girls turns more complex.

Zlotowski, who co-wrote the script with Robin Campillo, toys with an abundance of themes over the course of two hours. By turns, Planetarium oscillates between the feel of a supernatural thriller, a romantic melodrama, a nostalgic look at classic cinema, and, by the end, throws in some timely overtones of anti-Semitism as well. Selecting just one or two could have produced an excellent period film, yet the desire to do so much comes at the expense of fundamentals like plot or pacing. Instead Zlotowski’s ambition results in an exceptionally muddled film lacking in the gravity it strives for.

As elder sister Laura, Ms. Portman uses her not-inconsiderable talent to salvage an average performance out of the confusion. As the producer Korben, Mr. Salinger turns in the most inconsistent performance of the three. At times earnest, at others overdone, he at least puts in the effort. The same cannot be said of Ms. Depp, who appears resigned to drifting aimlessly through her scenes.

Planetarium is sumptuously shot by Georges Lechaptois and Robin Coudert’s score sets an appropriate mood. There are enough glimpses of what could have been an effecting film to suggest a promising future for Ms. Zlotowski. An abundance of ideas can sometimes be as much of a hindrance as a dearth of them, and the former affected Planetarium for the worse. With a more discerning eye in the editing and revision stages, however, Zlotowski’s next film might find much greater success.

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