'Planetarium': Venice Review

A good-looking misfire.

Natalie Portman and Lily-Rose Depp play sisters touring 1930s France as mediums in Rebecca Zlotowski's drama, which premiered out of competition at Venice.

Armed with lots of style but woefully little substance, Rebecca Zlotowski's Planetarium is an unfortunate case of a promising young filmmaker taking a big swing and missing.

Zlotowski, 36, has carved out a reputation for herself in her native France and on the international festival circuit — her first two movies, both with Lea Seydoux, were the lovely Belle Epine and the striking if less surefooted Grand Central — and her new work is by far her highest-profile yet: It stars Natalie Portman and Lily-Rose Depp as a pair of spiritualist sisters in 1930s Paris, and screens at both the Venice and Toronto film festivals. But watching Planetarium is a bit like being given a plump, brightly colored balloon and having it deflate in your hands. The movie is all tease and no follow-through, letting its story leak out in dribs and drabs that fail to gather any momentum or meaning, let alone mystery.

There’s so much craftsmanship on display here — from Portman’s typically assured lead performance (much of which is delivered in solid French) to the gliding camera moves and sumptuous but lived-in period production design — that you want to give the film the benefit of the doubt. And at first it’s easy to be taken in by how luscious it all looks, the stunning leading ladies prancing around in pre-war frocks and letting out peals of laughter between drags on cigarettes. But Planetarium never turns its alluring parts into anything approaching a compelling, or even coherent, whole. There’s ultimately so little to latch onto in the movie that you walk out wondering what was left on the cutting-room floor, and why.

Portman and Depp play Laura and Kate Barlow, American mediums touring Europe, where rapt audience members join them onstage to communicate with the dearly departed. Quiet teenager Kate (Depp) is the one with “the gift,” closing her eyes and shuddering as she makes contact with ghosts. Big sis Laura (Portman) is the emcee and manager, working the crowd and coolly negotiating bookings and fees behind the scenes.

While in Paris, Laura and Kate link up with middle-aged French-Jewish producer Andre (a very good Emmanuel Salinger), who wants to shoot the sisters' seances as part of an ambitious new film. He also casts Laura as the star of the project (alongside a dashing matinee idol played by ubiquitous French heartthrob Louis Garrel), offering her a taste of life outside the medium business.

Laura’s desire to change careers creates tension with her sister, as does the increasingly close partnership between the two young women and Andre; at one point, Laura walks in on Kate and Andre having what might be best described as an erotic seance — though it’s not clear whether her reaction is one of jealousy, protectiveness over Kate, or both.

Not much is clear in Planetarium, which seems to mistake narrative opaqueness for subtlety. One of the movie’s most conspicuous failings is the lack of a persuasive sisterly bond between Laura and Kate. We see lots of crusty French film industry bigwigs discussing the Barlow girls, but Zlotowski and co-writer Robin Campillo (Eastern Boys) are bafflingly stingy in showing the girls actually talking or spending time together. The intensity of their climactic emotional moment — the sisters racing toward each other and tearfully embracing — feels so random you suspect many of the actresses’ shared scenes were cut from the final version.

Portman, with a huskier voice than usual and specs that only underline her grave and sensuous beauty, manages to convey a sense of who Laura is despite the fact that much of her performance has been chopped up into poses and postures. Zlotowski clearly loves filming the actress — perhaps a bit too much; she never gets under her skin the way Darren Aronofsky did in Black Swan (or Mike Nichols did, to a lesser extent, in Closer), exposing the cracks of panic and passion beneath the movie-star composure.

Depp, meanwhile, looks the part, with her sleepy gaze and ethereal gorgeousness. But she’s either not up to the task or she’s been seriously misdirected; her affectless line readings suck the energy right out of her scenes. While Kate is supposed to be withdrawn and otherworldly, she often comes off as simply vapid (for more compellingly withdrawn and otherworldly, check out the extraordinary Millie Bobby Brown on Netflix’s Stranger Things).

The first French film shot on digital supercamera Alexa 65, Planetarium certainly looks fabulous, with richly textured visuals and intricate interplay between light and shadow (the DP is Georges Lechaptois, who worked on Zlotowski’s previous two films). And Zlotowski can hardly be accused of phoning it in: She flashes back and forward, shows us dream sequences and snippets of the film Laura stars in, trying to capture the wonder and weirdness of the Barlow sisters’ lives, as well as the creeping anxiety of Europe on the eve of World War II. But if anything, Planetarium’s perpetual motion feels like a distraction from the fact that the filmmakers haven’t fleshed out their characters or gotten a grip on their weighty themes. The movie spins and swivels and pirouettes, seeming to hope you won’t notice how flaky and insubstantial it is.

Zlotowski's oblique approach to narrative worked nicely in her debut feature Belle Epine, but that film was about an adolescent adrift; its looseness felt lyrical, and fitting for a story of inchoate longings. Planetarium features a lot more plot and forward movement — it calls for greater clarity and tighter control over storylines, neither of which Zlotowski and Campillo deliver.

One wonders what a filmmaker like Sofia Coppola might have done with this material. She, like Zlotowski, is more stylist than storyteller, but at her best she brings purpose, as well as feeling, to her images, using music, precise framing and cutting, and the faces and bodies of her actors to guide us toward their characters’ inner worlds. It’s that kind of focus and firmness that’s so sorely lacking in Planetarium. The real ghost is the film itself.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Production companies: A Les Films Velvet/Les Films du Fleuve/Kinology/France 3 Cinema/Proximus/RTBF Production
Cast: Natalie Portman, Lily-Rose Depp, Emmanuel Salinger, Amira Casar, Louis Garrel, Pierre Salvadori
Director: Rebecca Zlotowski

Writers: Rebecca Zlotowski, Robin Campillo
Producers: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne, Frederic Jouve
Music: Robin Coudert
Editor: Julien Lacheray
Production designer: Katia Wyszkop
Costume designer: Anais Romand
Casting: Philippe Elkoubi

Not rated, 105 minutes