Here’s another TIFF review! Critics have been a bit hard on this French-Belgium production, and after viewing the film, I can unfortunately see why.
Rebecca Zlotowski is known for pushing boundaries, especially with 2013’s Grand Central. At 36, she has a future ahead of her. With the premise of Planetarium being leaked earlier this year, that film seemed like her future. Two sisters who are mediums being channeled by an early film maker? Sign us up! However, it isn’t once you watch the film that reality sets in. If anything, the first half an hour or so is actually spectacular and even magical. It is, instead, after this segment of the film that you find out how it really is. Planetarium has imaginative concepts, but you would have to lunge yourself to reach where the potential sits from where the film takes you. Planetarium had such promise, but it gets lost amidst its own ambitions.
It’s actually difficult to pinpoint what this film is exactly about, because it doesn’t have a clear identity. It begins with a solid sale of the Barlow sisters’ show: Older sister Laura (Natalie Portman) pitches the stunt and younger sister Kate (Lily-Rose Depp) performs said stunt. Kate allows participants to visit their dead loved ones by breathing heavily. It almost seems like an exercise in hypnosis rather than a psychic ability, and this similarity never gets explained despite how interesting it is. Nonetheless, that, along with the abandoned reading in favour of being ambiguous, don’t get bothersome despite their casting of the audience into isolation. You get intrigued and you want to see where the movie goes.
From there, the girls get picked up by a director (Emmanuel Salinger) who wants to use them as his muses in both his art and his personal life. This is where the film begins to get a bit confused, but it seems to only be complex in a good way at this point. It’s the kind of complication that could indicate that a film is going to be deep and not tangled. Essentially, you see Laura become a mysterious cinematic figure, and the movie seems to go down an arthouse path that could have been interesting. You see many personas being depicted with various costumes, make up and shots. This also becomes fascinating in a movie making sense, when you see the old style effects being applied via chemical baths and colourization to the footage. This abruptly ends.
We get a bit of a look into director Korben’s past through his seances, and this, while being plotted across the film’s duration at least, also doesn’t quite get explored enough. You can explain what these flashbacks and dream sequences mean, but there isn’t a real clarity or resolution present. This applies to all of the subplots that follow what could have (and should have) been the two focuses of the story. Laura does her own thing, and so does Kate. Laura’s subplot feels sadly pointless and absolutely unnecessary, while Kate’s goes along the original blueprints at first and then has an ending from out of nowhere. Each character has a crescendo to their own tales, but none of them feel satisfactory and it is a damn shame. The certainty of the movie dissolves far too quickly, and by the end it’s just an absolute miasma of a story.
It’s so unfortunate. Portman soared as the protective older sister, the curious traveler and the strict medium. Salinger has an interesting layering to him that occasionally gets bombarded by the movie’s awkwardness but is otherwise challenging. Depp tries her best and while she isn’t a scene stealer, she has years ahead of her and has time to grow. Here, Depp is a bit misplaced despite her best and most honest efforts. With the right people, Depp has potential. Planetarium doesn’t know if it wants to be an art film, a thriller or a drama. Hell, it doesn’t even know which story it wants to truly tell, never mind how to tell it. There are some lovely moments in the film, especially visually, but it ends up being a frustrating exercise. It starts out as a gorgeous love letter to early cinema and the art of attraction, and the rest of the paper is crumpled beyond legibility.
Final Rating: 4.5/10