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2016 London Film Festival Review: Planetarium

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planetMany modern films are made to be easily digested, perhaps a little too easily, lending them a flimsy quality. Others take time, the viewer encouraged to make their way through multiple plot layers, layers that may reveal themselves long after watching. The best films remain fixed in the mind. Planetarium is one of these films.

Planetarium purports to be about one thing and two people, when in fact it has a lot to say about many issues and society at large, and it’s message, however interpreted, is extremely touching.

Natalie Portman is most definitely the star. Luminous on screen and a pleasure to watch. She and Lily-Rose Depp star as sisters Laura and Kate Barlow, American mediums plying their trade in Paris. Whether they have real power or not is by the by, but there is undoubtedly magic in their story.

Skipping between the English and French languages, Planetarium unwinds along the gilded corridors of the wealthy and beloved. The sisters begin the movie by giving an eerie, decadent seance to a crowd of potential patrons, Laura dressed androgynously and Kate playing the ingenue who can speak with the dead. Here they meet Andre Korben (Emmanuel Salinger) who is completely enamoured with the pair, inviting them to stay with him. Korben is both a man of means, and a man of cinema, on the board of the French Film Council, which is not delivering its expected dividends. Korben has an ulterior motive and wants to harness Kate’s power. Simultaneously, he wishes to merge the worlds of cinema and the Occult, attempting to film a live seance with the sisters. Laura takes to the silver screen with aplomb and forges a career, separating her from her sister, who begins to grow closer to Korben.

Planetarium is stunning on screen, while also commentating on the mores of the French entertainment industry on the eve of the Second World War. A palpable battle between wonder and paranoia is explored throughout. Rebecca Zlotowski may well have been influenced by Jean Renoir’s La Regle De Jeu, a more controversial take on the differences between the have and have nots during Hitler’s time.

This is a movie riven with rich performance. Depp is an interesting screen presence and an apt choice for the young, pale and wide-eyed Kate, but it is hard to tell whether her acting skills are unhoned or she is supposed to be so ethereal. Either way, she works very well with Portman.

In fact, Portman is so gorgeous to watch that it’s important not to let that detract from her art. She is never anything other than Laura, making her fizz with hidden depths. Laura is in turn a mother figure, business woman, paramour and fragile bird. Salinger is also a delight to watch, for different reasons, being himself fragile as well as haunted, benevolent, loving and sometimes perverse. All praise to Zlotowski and fellow screenwriter Robin Campillo for bringing such complex characters to life.

Hinted at the start, Planetarium moves in to darker territory as the film comes to a close. It doesn’t take a stretch of imagination to see that Zlotowski is making a film about events that have direct resonance.

This is a fantastic experience for anyone wanting to delve in to our recent cinematic past. I highly recommend seeing it, perhaps more than once. Watch the trailer for Planetarium here.

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