Planetarium review – Natalie Portman shines in swirling supernatural chiller

Every scene looks exquisite in Rebecca Zlotowski’s magical tale of psychic sisters in 1930s Paris, trying to replicate their act on film as the war creeps in

There are plenty of movies about movies that put a spotlight on creating movie magic. Rebecca Zlotowski’s Planetarium may be the first one about actual magic in movies. This gorgeous, dreamy supernatural drama has a serpentine script that I wouldn’t exactly call surreal, but it’s far more interested in skiffing along its narrative currents than connecting every dot. In this case, it’s all for the better, as a faster pace means yet another lush sequence in an art deco apartment, odd medical laboratory or elegantly designed studio sound stage.

There are no planetariums in Planetarium, but it does feature a genuine star in Natalie Portman. In her first big scene, she’s wearing a tuxedo and psyching up a nightclub audience for an evening of paranormal entertainment. The Barlow Sisters (she and Lily-Rose Depp) are an American seance act traipsing through pre-war Europe, too broke to “go home”. With trouble brewing in Berlin, they’ve hit Paris and, after a night dazzling rich folk and drinking champagne, Laura (Portman) realises she may have a mark in Korben (Emmanuel Salinger) that could mean a meal ticket.

They go to his exquisite home (“I collect knick-knacks”) and perform a private seance. Korben is soon hooked because – and herein lies part of Planetarium’s brilliance – the Barlow Sisters might not be grifters. They might actually possess a link to an unseen world.

If they do, it’s because of Kate (Depp), whose childlike innocence at first seems like an act, then we recognise it is pure, then we realise it might reflect something a bit terrifying. That may make Planetarium sound like a typical horror film, but this aspect (though creepy and, at times, sexually provocative) is just the tip of it.

Korben, who Laura recognises has an accent from “elsewhere”, turns out to be a movie producer. His company wants to modernise with some sort of big bet, especially as other national cinemas (Germany’s?) are making advancements. The Barlow Sisters may just be the thing the studio needs, and after some screen tests, he decides to put Laura in a film. But not just a typical film. He is convinced that, somehow, they can recreate the essence of his experience with the Barlows and record the sensation.

Planetarium then swerves into a remarkable exploration of the difficulty an artist faces when trying to create new forms of representation. But because it’s France in the 1930s, it’s done in the most visually arresting way. In a magical centrepiece, Portman appears in a variety of film stocks and in jaw-dropping gowns. There isn’t a scene in this movie that doesn’t wow with stunning costumes. The narrative gets even stranger as Laura assumes a new identity as a film starlet, while Kate and Korben continue their experiments.

Sharp viewers will catch on early that Korben is Jewish. He doesn’t hide it, but doesn’t announce it either. As the drumbeats to war grow louder, it becomes clear that his future is uncertain. Scholars of French cinema will recognise similarities with the story of Bernard Natan, a film innovator and one-time owner of Pathé who was stripped of his French citizenship and killed at Auschwitz. It’s still the sisters’ story, but Korben’s plight adds some emotional heft.

The weird swirl of storylines jibes with Laura’s early narration, thinking back to “before the war”, then realising that they are living “before the war” at the time. The headiness works best during a lengthy party sequence: artists and theorists engage in a snowball fight, and one intellectual criticises another, shouting: “There is no pleasure without method!” It’s an absurd moment, as is the whole movie, but thanks to the shimmering sets and beauty in the frame, there’s enough magic to pull it off.


Jordan Hoffman

The GuardianTramp

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