Night of the Shooting Stars: Zlotowski’s Mysterious Glance at a World on a Wire
As one character observes to another upon a chance reunion in post-WWII France, the trouble with nostalgic memories regarding the ‘innocence’ good old days of the pre-War period is reconciling one’s lack of foresight with the tragedy to come—if only everyone had been able to relish those simpler times more fully. And so begins Planetarium, the enigmatic third film from French writer/director Rebecca Zlotowski (co-scripted by Robin Campillo, director of Eastern Boys), which sprawls immediately into an extensive flashback as the opening title stretches across a starry night sky, and returns to 1930s Paris, where a pair of mysterious American spiritualist sisters complete the last leg of their world tour.
Starring a sublimely melancholic Natalie Portman and the yet-to-be-proven versatility of Lily-Rose Depp as the sisters, Zlotowski’s most ambitious project to date is as visually impressive as it is anxiously provocative, recalling a golden historical age already unequivocally tainted by anti-Semitism during the period in question. Utilizing the developing technology of the cinematic arts to advent the possibilities of capturing elements of the spiritual realm, it is a poetic, enigmatic assimilation of a particularly creative and painful period, with bright flashes of emotional zest underlining its ethereal tendencies.
Sisters Laura (Portman) and Kate Barlow (Depp) are renowned psychic mediums, contemplating their next move as they complete their final acts of public clairvoyance. Laura sees the act has begun to wear on her kid sister dramatically, and she vows to establish a bit of normalcy for her once they are financially stable. But when notable movie producer Andre Korben (Emmanuel Salinger) hires them for a private séance after witnessing their act, he experiences astounding contact with a spirit. The head of a stressed movie production house, Korben decides to use this opportunity to build a film project around the sisters starring Laura, meanwhile utilizing the spiritual talents of Kate to capture the other worldly presence on film. But neither Korben nor the Barlow sisters realize something much more sinister is happening in the world around them, a gathering storm which will affect them all differently, but ever lastingly.
Natalie Portman appears in what has to be her most statuesque on-screen persona to date, and the stylized tress and period wardrobe complements her mournful carriage. Beautiful, but with a hint of sorrow evident at the corners of her drawn lips and hollowed cheeks, she recalls the bespectacled Joan Fontaine of Hitchcock’s Suspicion, a director Zlotowski would appear to be emulating in tone with the juxtaposition of two troubled females (modeled after the Fox sisters of the Victorian era), each resembling the other.
Nestled within Planetarium is a film within a film, Salinger’s film production, which is merely a ruse for him to capture the ghost who’s been sexually gratifying him during his séances with Depp’s increasingly sallow-faced Kate. His film project, Deadly Apparition (unwittingly helmed by a man not in complete control of his material played by Pierre Salvadori, director of In the Courtyard and Priceless), is telling a similar narrative, a man (a brief but effective Louis Garrel) who falls in love with a psychic, a woman unsure if he loves her or the dead wife he’s using her to contact him. Salinger’s Korben (who heavily favors Udo Kier) is involved similarly with Depp, except complicated by her youth and his sexual relations with a male ghost whose identity he isn’t quite sure of, while Portman’s Laura is a flustered and quite possibly unnecessary buffer in both scenarios. The visual approximations of Portman and ghostly special effects may be anachronistic but are nevertheless mesmerizing.
Zlotowski is purposefully unclear about the increasingly dangerous anti-Semitism proliferating around Korben, who’s Jewish, and his preoccupied new wards, characters so wrapped up in their own interests and fantasies they can’t see beyond the possibilities of their current agendas.
The always stunning Amira Casar plays a faded starlet who chastises scientific hypotheses at a dinner party (the conversation is interrupted by snow falling outside, which unfolds into a beautifully conceived drunken snowball fight, also featuring The Tin Drum actor David Bennent, providing the film with another unique accent), and is skeptical of the supernatural realm. But a spiritual presence is making itself known to Korben through Depp’s Kate, the only sister with the gift (for once, Depp has been cast as character she can capably portray, a morose, emotionally troubled teenager), relayed with troubling finesse by Zlotowski as a man in creaky leather (so noisy on the soundtrack you can nearly smell it) who has sadomasochistic designs on Korben (always shot from the torso down, this personification of the deceased queer character recalls the visualization of Sebastian Venable in 1959’s Suddenly Last Summer). Equally as disconcerting are the sexual séances held privately between Korben and Kate.
As the relationship between Korben and the sisters evolves into something a bit more fraught, everything begins to fall apart at the seams, as the film production is hampered by what appears to be a deadly smear-campaign for the Jewish Korben, a naturalized French citizen of Polish descent (with Zlotowski borrowing from a real life incident in 1942 involving producer Bernard Natan), hopelessly unaware of the kind of danger he’s in, being framed for fraudulently handling the film’s budget, plus potential fallout for pornographic materials portraying his engagement in homosexual acts.
In several ways, the examination of an artistic production thwarted or informed by budding Nazism briefly recalls something like Truffaut’s The Last Metro (1980), but Planetarium, which also defines a type of device reproducing a semblance of the solar system (like the cinema itself) plays with the insidious possibilities of devastation lurking on our thresholds. Zlotowski references a quote from Marguerite Duras in explaining her inspiration for the film, which applies to most of the happenings of Planetarium, “We never know what’s on the verge of changing.”
As the unfolding tragedy reaches its climax, we snap back into the initial conversation between Portman and Casar, who nabs the former psychic a small part in a new film production. Together they play nuns in an orphanage, awakened in the middle of the night to glance at the happenings in the sky, which rather magnificently recalls the framing device of the Taviani Bros. The Night of the Shooting Stars (1982). And as George Lechaptois’ (who lensed both Belle Epine and Grand Central) camera drifts over the upturned face of Portman as her watery eyes behold a deliriously fantastical composite of the night time sky, Planetarium manages to ascend to a rare sense of cinematic wonder spliced intoxicatingly with an unshakeable stab of longing, and an inescapable sense of doom.
Reviewed on September 10th at the 2016 Toronto Int. Film Festival – Gala Programme. 106 Minutes