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There’s something about a magic show or a cold read that attracts many, not because they want to be entertained but because they want to believe, to feel that what they see on stage is in fact real. It’s been the premise for a number of very good films of late, but now comes Rebecca Zlotowski‘s Planetarium, a curiously perplexing film that is visually compelling while often exasperating to follow. It challenges in ways that seem impossible to decipher, even as it tantalizes.
At the dawning of World War II, in France, American sisters Laura (Natalie Portman) and Kate Barlow (Lily Rose-Depp) are a traveling seance show, wowing audiences with their mesmerizing act. As Laura works the crowd, priming them to believe, Kate talks to the dead family members of those willing to sit with her on stage. In Paris, the pair attract the attention of Andre Korben (Emmanuel Salinger), a wealthy filmmaker who is stunned by a personal seance in which he is convinced a spirit contacted him. He decides to make a movie about it, making a star of Laura while Kate and Andre head to a paranormal institute to experiment with odd contraptions in hopes of capturing a spirit on film, which nearly ruins Andre financially, but worse, separates the sisters, causing Laura to question motives. Meanwhile, the war creeps closer and Andre hides a secret that could dismantle all they’ve worked to accomplish.
Planetarium starts with a lush and evocative start, one that plays out the entirety of the sister’s stage act, and like Christopher Nolan‘s The Prestige or Neil Burger‘s The Illusionist, the hook is the thing, giving the audience a chance to be witness to the trick per se without showing us the how. This and the following seance at Korben’s home make for a strong start, and the film excels in lulling us into the admittedly engaging story. It’s from here though that things get twisted and not always in the best of ways as the movie veers to one side and divides itself into a number of branching subplots that don’t always work. Laura finds herself swept up in the glitz and glamour of the star’s life and she is treated to a world she never thought she possible, believing that perhaps the girls could earn their way back to the United States. All this while Korben concentrates on Kate, using bizarre methods (including radiation) in desperation to snap a photo of a ghost and in turn, change the world.
Performances are mostly strong with Portman predictably holding her own, the gifted actress keeping Laura a sensuous and empowered character but not one that will earn her any acclaim. Rose-Depp fares a bit better, playing an ingenue with a startling skill and the actress is more than convincing throughout and Salinger is almost impossible not to watch. The story, however, begins to muddle in the second half and grows increasingly off kilter as it builds to its end, though as mentioned, it’s always beautiful to look at, with Zlotowski’s excellent direction and Georges Lechaptois‘ cinematography. Not for everyone, the French and English production is never as fun as it feels like it should be and never as as moving as it means to be. Nonetheless, genre fans should find plenty here to entertain.
Movie description: Planetarium is a 2017 drama about two sisters who are believed to possess the supernatural ability to connect with ghosts as they cross paths with a visionary French film producer.
Director(s): Georges Lechaptois
Actor(s): Natalie Portman, Lily-Rose Depp, Emmanuel Salinger