Planetarium, Rebecca Zlotowski’s new movie starring Lily-Rose Depp
Through the story of two sisters who practise Spiritism − Natalie Portman and Lily-Rose Depp − Planetarium plunges the viewer into the troubled atmosphere of the 1930s. For Numéro, the film’s director Rebecca Zlotowski agreed to dissect her movie.
After her first two films Belle Épine (2010) and Grand Central (2013), Rebecca Zlotowski has just released her third feature, Planetarium. Set in the 1930s, it tells the story of two sisters who practise Spiritism (Natalie Portman and Lily-Rose Depp both in splendid form) and their encouter with a Parisian film producer (Emmanuel Salinger) who is fascinated by their relationship with the afterlife. Out of this scenario, Planetarium weaves a complex and moving canvas that veers between an X-ray of a disquieting era, in which war lies just around the corner, and a reflection on the seductive power of images, whether real or dreamed. In her interview with Numéro Zlotowski agreed to dissect the multiple strands that went into the creation of her ambitious movie.
Numéro: Planetarium mixes 1930s costume drama, ghost movies and a reflection on the nature of cinema. Did you set yourself no limits ?
Rebecca Zlotowski : The only limits were financial, with respect to the period sets and reconstitutions. But Robin Campillo, when he was writing the script, pushed the film into zones of enigma and mystery. Before hiring him, I’d begun working on the true story of the Fox sisters, Americans who invented spiritualism, the ancestor of Spiritism, in the mid 19th-century. I wanted to show states of trance. I had a sort of frustration with respect to my previous films. I wanted something stronger to happen on set. I like writing and reading, but I’ve never lived like a born director. It wasn’t a calling for me. In making Planetarium, I said to myself that either I was capable of making something happen on set that would totally amaze me, or in the end I was “just” a script writer… So I needed the right material to be able to go all the way with my ideas. I thought that the banker the Fox sisters met in real life could become a movie producer. We wouldn’t be in the US but in France in the 1930s. One sister, played by Lily-Rose Depp, would be a Spiritist, while the other, played by Natalie Portman, would have the gift of being able to sell her sister’s talent.
The “film within a film” is a classic trope which you renew by showing the rise of Natalie Portman’s character, who becomes an actress.
When the world of cinema comes into the film through the producer played by Emmanuel Salinger, the viewer starts spending time in movie studios. It’s a different relationship with ghosts and the fabrication of images than Spiritism. This carries on from one of my obsessions which was at work in my first two films, one of which features a motorbike circuit, and the other a nuclear power station. I’ve always filmed places where death prowls invisibly. For me, cinema has this morbid side to it. I’m very joyful on a day-to-day basis, but my work takes me towards an illusionist, spectral, expiatory and frightening vision of cinema. Even if I’d like to get away from that. With Planetarium I wanted to go towards an idea of cinema as a scintillating place of immediate seduction, of dreams… I wanted to explore the beauty of this artifice but also its distress. Behind the character played by Emmanuel Salinger there’s the memory of The Last Tycoon.
You’ve known Natalie Portman, who plays the lead, for years.
The question was why hadn’t we made a film together before! We met through a common makeup-artist friend in Los Angeles. Making a movie in the US has never been my frame of reference, but since Natalie moved to France at the same time I started thinking about Planetarium, I began fantasizing about having her in the film almost unconsciously. I told her about it right at the beginning, before the script had even been written: “I’ve a role for an American woman who moves to Paris, follow my eyes!” Natalie then told me about Lily-Rose Depp, who I didn’t know. I thought the idea was great, because I wanted Emmanuel Salinger to take the male lead. As with all castings, I had to play on the signified and signifier of the actors.
Lily-Rose Depp is filmed in a very evanescent way, as though she were an apparition.
Lily-Rose plays a girl of 13. I liked the idea of bringing her back towards childhood. She’s 17 now, and it’s one of the first and last child roles she’ll be able to play. I imagined her character having the aura and mystery of child stars − like Drew Barrymore in E.T. − who achieve fame very young and fall into drugs and alcohol. Lily-Rose Depp inspires me, she has a very expressive face, like a silent actress. Just watching her, something happens. That was perfect for me because you follow her character a bit like a mystery – this contact she has with the afterlife, you don’t know where it comes from. You only know she believes in something.
The film takes place in the 1930s, just before the war. That’s where the anxiety is.
It’s also an anxiety we’re experiencing today, even if I’m not superimposing the two periods. In my film, Emmanuel Salinger’s character, a Jewish producer, is the victim of rumours. Images are used against him, particularly a porn film he’s supposed to have acted in. I wanted the film to open traditional doors of reflection about the power of images to convince. In a negative way, like with this producer, but also in a more ambiguous way through the theme of ghosts − how you convince yourself that you’ve seen something…
Planetarium deals with anti-Semitism head on.
There’s a relation with Jewish culture in the film because it’s the hero’s culture. I’m French from a Jewish background, but I’m not practising. In Planetarium I wanted to talk about a certain idea of “Mitteleuropa” that we’ve perhaps lost, this moment when Paris was a hub for intellectuals from eastern Europe. My father plays a character who speaks Yiddish, a language that’s dying out. With the tools that are mine, in the realm of fiction and the romantic, my film is a response to a certain rise in anti-Semitism that worries me. I wanted to fix a climate in images.
Planetarium shows two strong female characters. Does the idea of female cinema have any meaning for you?
I believe there’s a male and a female cinema, but that it doesn’t necessarily correspond to the gender of the authors. David Lean did female cinema − I saw Summertime recently, for me it’s a woman’s film. On the other hand I’m not sure that Les Salauds by Claire Denis is a terribly feminine film. The question of the degree of sexuality of the person directing interests me more: do we come into the studio with a very sexual attitude? Do we sleep with the actors? All that changes the form of a film. With Benoît Jacquot or Jacques Doillon, there’s a strong relationship with the actors and actresses. Sexuality flows, which isn’t necessarily the case with my films. So the central question is, “How does our gender influence how we make films?” I wouldn’t know how to answer with respect to myself. All I know is I that I don’t come on set looking for physical seduction. Some people say that I’ve “renounced” a certain amount of femininity, but I don’t think so. As for the question of feminism, there’s something political in cinema, but that can’t be the basis for my practice of it. To paraphrase Proust, a film with a message “is like a gift whose price we’ve forgotten.” Rather than a “female film-maker,” I think of myself more as someone with a minority attitude. I’m straight, but I believe in a gay or lesbian cinema for example. In a certain way, homosexuality, Jewishness and femininity can go together in a minority attitude. I recognize myself in that. In Planetarium, I identify first and foremost with the fragile authority figure played by Emmanuel Salinger.