Natalie Portman started out playing the 12-year-old accomplice to a grouchy French hitman in “The Professional,” and for a long time after that she was the ingénue — most memorably in “Garden State,” where she did a great spin on that cloying ’60s/’70s archetype, the Kooky Girl. But it wasn’t until six years ago, at the 2010 Venice International Film Festival, that Portman finally changed her image, her trajectory, her aspect. As the possessed ballerina of “Black Swan,” she played an innocent — the traumatized victim of a quintessential stage mother — who was so fixated on becoming the dancer she thought she had to be that she colluded, with hellbent fervor, in her own destruction. She was going to rule over “Swan Lake” if it killed her.
Portman’s Academy Award for Best Actress was sealed from almost the moment “Black Swan” premiered at Venice. But it wasn’t just joining the Oscar club that marked her transformation. The ingénue wasn’t an ingénue anymore: Portman’s performance was laced with the agony of a girl who forced herself to leave girlhood behind in order to live out her girlhood dreams. As an actress, she went over to the dark side of growing up, and the look on her face told you she wasn’t coming back.
In the six years since “Black Swan,” Portman has had a pretty quiet resume (a couple of “Thor” movies, a minor role in Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups”). Just today, though, she made a splash again at Venice with her lavishly praised performance as Jacqueline Kennedy in Pablo Larraín’s “Jackie.” No such expectation should be placed on “Planetarium” (which also just premiered at Venice), in which she plays an American psychic in France on the eve of World War II. Watching this movie, though, you can see how Portman may have missed her calling — by about 75 years. In “Planetarium,” she’s radiant in a majestically troubled, are-you-experienced? way, like Garbo or Crawford, with the icy grin of a haunted goddess.
On the stage of a nightclub, where Portman’s Laura presides over séances along with her sister, Kate (played by Lily-Rose Depp, the daughter of Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis), she’s as cold as the Emcee in “Cabaret,” but she’s magnetic too. She has a force. Unfortunately, “Planetarium” is an inert and slipshod movie — messy and aimless, a period tale told with zero period atmosphere (you have to keep reminding yourself that it’s not taking place in 2016), built around a situation with enough possibilities to make you wish that the director, Rebecca Zlotowski, had taken advantage of at least one of them.
A critics’ darling ever since her debut, “Belle Epine,” won a prize for Best First Feature Film at Cannes in 2010, Zlotowski may have conjured the “Cabaret” aura on purpose. “Planetarium,” the third movie she has directed, is one of those films about how no one can see that war is on the horizon, even though the signs are everywhere, and the vaguely “decadent” upper-crust atmosphere stands in for the breakdown to come. At a performance, Laura and Kate meet André Korben (Emmanuel Salinger), a wealthy movie producer obsessed with spiritualism — and with proving that it’s real. He hires the two women to star in a movie on the subject, entitled “Deadly Apparition.” It will be a scripted drama, though Korben plans to capture an actual conjuring on film.
That sounds like a nifty ambition, but when Korben makes a breathless speech about “reinventing cinema,” it’s a sign that Zlotowski is piling on pet themes rather than bringing them to life. The dawn of World War II, the showbiz hucksterism of séances, the possible reality of séances (Laura, the film implies, has the true gift), the purity of cinema — “Planetarium” is an ambitious movie, but it’s also a listless hodgepodge.
Emmanual Salinger plays Korben with a kindly, pleasing bourgeois courtliness; he comes closest to giving this rickety movie a center of gravity. Portman gives it a downbeat glamour, but she’s stranded by the meager script. It’s never clear what drives this woman from Rochester, N.Y., to do what she’s doing. Lily-Rose Depp is playing the recessive second banana, but considering that her character is meant to be psychic, she’s awfully blasé. Depp seems to have inherited her father’s cool placidity without a trace of his mischief.
“Planetarium” has been made in a lurchingly prosaic, tossed-together-in-the-editing-room way, so to ask whether the film “believes” in psychic phenomena is almost beside the point. Yet it certainly seems to: There’s a moment when some kind of visitation, in the form of a flashing puff of smoke, gets captured on film. Is this a new movement in French-speaking cinema? Olivier Assayas’ “Personal Shopper,” which divided audiences at Cannes a few months ago, is a movie that features actual ghosts, a startling thing to behold in the context of the secular objective eye of a director like Assayas. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but if the next film by the Dardenne brothers turns out to be about a young woman in Brussels, abandoned by the state, who develops a relationship with an apparition who helps her break into the local welfare office, it will definitely be a trend.