Dir. Rebecca Zlotowski. France-Belgium, 2016. 106 mins

Planetarium 4

A sensual, sophisticated semi-allegorical drama set in the world of French cinema on the eve of World War II, Planetarium is nothing if not ambitious. Rebecca Zlotowski’s third feature packs in so many ideas and themes, and boasts so many ravishing and enigmatic images, that it seems choked with riches.

Sadly, throat-clearing scenery shots and a cryptic montage midway through merely suspend the suspension of disbelief, while the sudden depiction of the troubled antagonist’s recurrent dream comes across as clumsy surrealism. Cineastes at Venice who see Planetarium will find plenty to argue about, but that seems unlikely to translate to box-office success down the road, despite the appearance of Natalie Portman in the lead role. 

The film is framed as a flashback from the perspective of the soignée heroine, the actress Laura Baker (Natalie Portman). After she bumps into an old friend, the movie star Eva Said (Maria Casar) on a speeding train at night, she recalls her and her sister’s fateful involvement with the wealthy French film tycoon André Korben (Emmanuel Salinger) on the eve of World War II.

Laura and her adolescent sister Kate (Lily-Rose Depp), whose maladjustment is signified by a gap in her right eyebrow, were American mediums playing the European spiritualism circuit when they impressed the gullible Korben with their sister act. Their routine is phoney, though quite sexual. Kate and Laura have meanwhile convinced themselves that Kate can actually contact the dead, hence the girl’s neurasthenic appearance.

A maverick producer seeking further investment from his studio’s irate investors, Korben installs the sisters in his chateau so he can conduct a series of seances and film the ghosts Kate summons. He and a Renoir-like filmmaker (Pierre Salvadori) conceive a project to launch Laura as a star playing a version of herself, and she seizes the opportunity to direct it herself. Sinisterly, Korben enlists Kate to conjur his lost ones, leading to private sessions between them which, though non-physical, produce orgasms.

Eschewing the relative leanness of her 2010 directorial debut Belle Épine and 2013’s Grand Central, Zlotowski piles more and more layers on Planetarium’s canvas. The parapsychologist (Jerzy Rogulsky) who removes Kate to his institute for further experimentation ushers the film into the realm of 1930s Universal horror movies.

Frustrated in her ability to attract Korben, Laura escapes the attentions of a pretentious actor (Louis Garrel) to have a one-night stand with a handsome film technician who carries around his own projector. There and then in the bedroom, he shows her a vintage porn movie featuring Korben. It’s too contrived a way of emphasising the producer’s decadence. His dream reveals that he is haunted by the memory of his father’s contempt for him and has repressed his homosexuality.

Throughout, Portman’s portrayal of the intelligent but unfulfilled and un-endearing Laura is good – some viewers will detect the frost in her, as they’ll detect the incipient madness in Depp’s Kate - although the real charmer here is Salinger.

Production company: Les Films Velvet, France 3 Cinéma, Les Films du Fleuve

International sales: Kinology, www.kinology.eu

Producer: Frédéric Jouve

Co-producers: Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne

Screenplay: Rebecca Zlotowski, Robin Campillo

Cinematography: George Lechaptois

Production design: Katia Wyszkop

Editor: Julia Lacheroy

Original music: Robin Coudert

Main cast: Natalie Portman, Emmanuel Salinger, Lily-Rose Depp, Amira Casar, Pierre Salvadori, Louis Garrel, David Bennent, Damien Chapelle, Jerzy Rogulsky