Under cover of darkness, movies warp time. They can stretch a second into a minute, or jump from one year to the next with a single cut. A fast-paced film can make two hours disappear in an instant; a slow-burn drama is capable of compressing an entire lifetime into 90 minutes. Planetarium, a period supernatural drama starring Natalie Portman, moves at such a glacial pace that you can almost imagine the decades passing outside the cinema doors; births and deaths, presidents coming and going, entire civilisations rising and falling.
What’s it about? What does that title even mean? Having sat through all two hours of Planetarium, I’m still none the wiser.
The plot points are these: Natalie Portman and Lily-Rose Depp play American sisters Laura and Kate, who specialise in holding seances at dimly-lit Paris clubs. Struggling for money, the pair fall into the orbit of an eccentric movie producer, Andre Korben (Emmanuel Salinger), who sets the aloof Laura on a fledgling career as an actress and uses the teenage Kate’s seemingly genuine necromantic powers to commune with a mysterious figure wearing a leather coat. Andre’s plan is to capture a ghost on camera for the first time and use the resulting footage to create an unparallelled cinematic experience: the kind of movie that will have audiences all over the world flocking to see a glimpse of the paranormal.
French director Rebecca Zlotowski’s film initially hints at a passionate drama, its intimate sound design conjuring an atmosphere of creepy eroticism. The sisters’ seances are all heavy breathing and ecstatic gasps; Andre’s visions of the unnamed figure in the leather jacket simmer with mystery and homoerotic tension.
In terms of trajectory and deeper meaning, however, Planetarium’s obscurity soon becomes a nagging frustration. There’s a blank uneasiness between Portman and Depp – a kind of non-charisma akin to the comically dead-eyed turns in Napoleon Dynamite. Come to think of it, all the performances in Planetarium are dialled back to almost somnambulant levels. Depp seems withdrawn and out of sorts, even when her character isn’t thoroughly drunk at one of Andre’s upper-crust parties. Portman’s turn is similarly difficult to read, as though all her energies have been expended on learning her French dialogue. (Both Depp and Portman’s command of French admittedly sounds excellent, at least to this writer’s tin ears.)
Such cold performances really don’t help when the story around the characters moves at such a plod. Ideas and plot points are set up but don’t really go anywhere; Andre is making a movie, but its precise nature is never explored. The decadence of the pre-WWII era Europe comes across in Andre’s champagne-sodden parties, but the fall of Paris to the Nazis is barely referenced until late in the film. How and why the two sisters got into communing with the dead isn’t explained, and, even more glaringly, they hardly seem like natural stage performers.
In one scene, Portman walks into a room full of actors and filmmakers, and the camera holds meaningfully on the profiles of each character, an incongruous electronic score rising in the background. Like so many moments in Planetarium, it just hangs in isolation, disconnected from the scenes around it.
In one of its more arresting moments, Planetarium draws a parallel between movie-making and spiritualism: a movie is a ghostly, semi-permanent image of people and places who will one day be lost to history. That’s an intriguing notion, one briefly touched on in the superb horror cinema documentary American Nightmares, and one well worth exploring further. Yet Planetarium fails to focus on this or any of the other situations it sets up; instead, it drifts, zombie-like, to a muted and shrug-worthy conclusion.
From beginning to end, Zlotowski’s film echoes Portman’s spiritualist-turned-starlet: poised, elegant and coolly charismatic – yet eerily divorced from anything resembling genuine human emotion.
Planetarium makes its UK debut at the London Film Festival on the 14th October.