Like an apparition that dissipates back into the ether before it can assume any meaningful shape, Rebecca Zlotowski’s “Planetarium” is a starry-eyed and somnambulant period adventure that captures the spirit of the movies at the expense of their soul. The film, which stars Natalie Portman and Lily-Rose Depp as vagabond sisters who land in Paris between the two great wars of the 20th century, begins with a compellingly morbid notion: Cinema isn’t dead, cinema is death itself. If only Zlotowski’s latest contribution to the medium ever found any life of its own.
A beautiful wisp of an idea that is seldom compelling and almost never coherent, “Planetarium” squanders an irresistibly alluring premise. Loosely inspired by the Fox sisters and other formative figures in the field of Spiritualism, the film clings to Laura (Portman) and Kate (Depp) Barlow as tightly as the siblings cling to each other. Orphaned and desperate to make a home for themselves in a wildly destabilized Europe, the sisters travel the continent and commune with its dead — at least, that’s what they claim.
Their seances, gaudy public spectacles performed in nightclubs, aren’t the most convincing of stage shows, but it’s clear that both girls possess a gift of one kind or another: Kate can genuinely channel the spirit world (even if the reception tends to be a bit fuzzy), while the older, protective, and more worldly Laura has a flair for showmanship (a particularly powerful gift at a time when the world was desperate for distraction). As with all forms of spectacle, of course, it’s only a matter of time before the movies try to co-opt the Barlow sisters for themselves.
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When “Planetarium” drops anchor in Paris, it does so because a French producer named André Korben (Udo Kier lookalike Emmanuel Salinger, perhaps best known for his work with Arnaud Desplechin) has taken a shine to the girls, the proto-Guy Maddin convinced that recording the Kate and Laura’s act might allow him to immortalize the dead on camera. And so begins a woozy romantic whatsit that hangs suspended between the cold reality of film production and the warm haze of dream logic. Zlotowski’s “Belle Épine” and “Grand Central” have previously suggested that the young French director is less interested in plot than poetics, but here she allows her story to become completely unmoored from reality, cutting a straightforward story into the stuff of diffuse abstraction.
The first film to be entirely shot on the Alexa 65, “Planetarium” is gorgeous from start to finish — the way in which cinematographer George Lechaptois uses a digital format to reanimate the gauzy quality of weathered celluloid speaks more lucidly to Zlotowski’s cosmic musings than anything in the script. Depp’s swanlike features, combined with the sullenness of her adolescent character, exude a modernity that alchemizes into something otherworldly when submitted to the film’s soft textures — her performance is far more interesting than it has any right to be, in part because of how it channels her mother’s singular screen presence (anyone who’s seen Vanessa Paradis slink through “The Girl on the Bridge” will be fighting off a very real feeling of déjà vu). Portman’s part is more grounded, but the actress taps into the stern sense of power that she’s harnessed for all of her most electrically elusive roles (“Closer” comes to mind), fitting into the film’s French dialogue as naturally as she does any of Anaïs Romano’s beautiful costumes.
But for all of its aesthetic opulence and moments of cinephilic wonder — it’s a joy to watch the scenes in which Korben refurbishes a ’30s-era film studio into a portal between the living and the dead — “Planetarium” is too scattered and symbolic to ever sustain real interest. Part “Hugo,” part “Magic in the Moonlight,” and all just a half-step removed from any real sense of purpose, Zlotowski fetishizes the transportive power of the movies while resisting its ability to actually take us anywhere.
The film is edited in a way so as to actively resist any sort of deeper engagement; it asks you to care about its characters, only to push you away from them until you only see Laura and Kate for the abstract ideas they represent. The results are enervating and dull, the movie becoming a beautifully appointed bore. It’s true, as the title suggests, that the light of an old film (and the people it preserves) is not unlike that shining from a distant star, at once both dead and alive. But Zlotowski’s creations are so drunk on the power of cinema that they lose sight of themselves — haunted by one war, they become blind to the next. “Planetarium” is much the same way, too busy staring up at the night sky to notice that it’s almost dawn.
“Planetarium” premiered at the 2016 Venice Film Festival. It will play later this week at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.