In an early scene in Planetarium, the character played by Natalie Portman says “I don’t want to be a disappointment.” After Portman’s powerful performance as JBK in Pablo Larraín’s “HBO-style” biopic Jackie, Rebecca Zlotowski’s film is not just a disappointment for its star, but a fiasco—and not just for her, but for the world. Watching it is like being invited on a date with someone very beautiful and generous, who ultimately not only has nothing meaningful to say but also doesn’t have the money to pay for the expensive bill.
Two sisters in pre-World War II Paris (Portman and Lily Rose-Depp) are trying to make a living as spiritualists; it seems that they can really communicate with dead people and their clients are satisfied and impressed. A movie producer (Emmanuel Salinger) looking for an original film idea comes into their orbit, and suddenly their lives are changed: Portman’s character is set to become the next Greta Garbo, playing the leading role in a production about ghosts. Art imitates life, but there are of course dark secrets plaguing the sisters and dangerous ideologies floating around in the air. Not to mention the fact that these two beautiful sisters are both interested in the same man.
Zlotowski is trying to face up to the difficult subject of ethnic cleansing, the European blindness of the inter-war period that led to one of the biggest tragedies in the history of mankind, but it’s all stranded on the border between fantasy and reality, expressed in cheap visual metaphors redolent of Amélie (2001). The parallels between spiritualism and cinema—both ways to capture ghosts—don’t come through strongly enough, and while Portman can be a charming actress, she clearly chose the wrong script. It’s all so aestheticized and tasteful that a viewer could fall asleep, but it would be hard to tell if she missed anything given the shapeless, convoluted storytelling. To believe in cinema we have to (as per Kierkegaard) suspend our faith in reality, but this liquified Chanel ad doesn’t take us to heaven along the way—it just plunges us into an infernal abyss of boredom.