As the French Film Fes­ti­val gets un­der way, Philippa Hawker con­sid­ers its eclec­tic line-up and one ghostly of­fer­ing with star ap­peal

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story - The Alliance Fran­caise French Film Fes­ti­val Philippa Hawker

At this year’s Alliance Fran­caise French Film Fes­ti­val there are more than 40 fea­tures, ev­ery­thing from biopics to broad com­edy, per­sonal es­say to car­ni­va­lesque whimsy, not to men­tion two movies star­ring the pro­tean Is­abelle Hup­pert: in one she plays a phi­los­o­phy lec­turer; in the other, a failed Euro­vi­sion con­tes­tant.

Amid all this va­ri­ety, some themes emerge: one is a sur­pris­ing num­ber of movies about the med­i­cal pro­fes­sion, an­other an em­pha­sis on im­age and per­for­mance. Fes­ti­val guest Re­becca Zlo­towski is bring­ing her third fea­ture, Plan­e­tar­ium, a film that seems like a com­pen­dium of movies in its own right: it’s a stylish pe­riod piece, a ghost story, a re­flec­tion on the art of cin­ema, a drama of ob­ses­sion and the tale of a con­tro­ver­sial pe­riod in French his­tory.

It stars Natalie Portman and Lily-Rose Depp, daugh­ter of Johnny Depp and Vanessa Par­adis, mak­ing her de­but in a French fea­ture. The pair play a cou­ple of Amer­i­can sis­ters, Laura (Portman) and Kate (Depp), who are spir­i­tu­al­ists with a stage show. Trav­el­ling through Europe in the late 1930s, they at­tract the at­ten­tion of a pow­er­ful and vi­sion­ary movie pro­ducer, An­dre Kor­ben (Em­manuel Salinger), who be­comes ob­sessed with them.

They are a dou­ble act with di­vided roles: Laura is the man­ager, Kate the medium. Kor­ben has plans for them both. He wants to turn Laura into a movie star, and he wants to cap­ture on film the act of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with spir­its.

Zlo­towski was in­spired by real-life ex­am­ples, be­gin­ning with the three Fox sis­ters, late-19th­cen­tury spir­i­tu­al­ists at one point hired by a wealthy banker who wanted to con­nect with his de­ceased wife. She trans­formed this banker into a very dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter with far more of a role in the story. She based him on a real per­son, a film pro­ducer called Bernard Natan, whose story she be­lieves de­serves to be bet­ter known.

For Depp, who turns 19 in May, Plan­e­tar­ium is the be­gin­ning of a ca­reer. Brought up in Paris and Los An­ge­les, she’s bilin­gual and sees her­self work­ing in both French and Amer­i­can cin­ema. Yet de­spite her par­ents’ ex­am­ple, she says it had never oc­curred to her that she could be an ac­tress. “I’d never taken classes or done plays or any­thing,” she says. When she was 14, she did a five-minute scene, “just for fun”, in Kevin Smith’s movie Tusk, ap­pear­ing along­side Smith’s daugh­ter, a child­hood friend, and some­thing clicked. “I re­alised this could be my job.”

She’s picky about scripts, she says, and wanted her first se­ri­ous French film to be “some­thing beau­ti­ful ... I want to be proud of ev­ery­thing I’ve done”. As Kate, the sis­ter who seems to have some sort of con­nec­tion with the un­canny, she has an ethe­real, al­most oth­er­worldly qual­ity, play­ing a fig­ure she has de­scribed as some­one “float­ing be­tween life and death”.

Portman’s ex­am­ple, she says, was cru­cial for her. “She made me feel so com­fort­able, it wasn’t hard to play that sis­terly bond. And just watch­ing the way she pre­pares for a scene, and how much she tries to get into the char­ac­ter’s mind, it re­ally in­spired me.”

In Plan­e­tar­ium, it’s not en­tirely clear what pow­ers the sis­ters have, or how much they know about each other’s gifts and in­ten­tions. For Zlo­towski, this ques­tion is an open one. “I don’t be­lieve in ghosts,” she says, “that’s why I be­lieve in cin­ema.”

One of her start­ing points for Plan­e­tar­ium, she adds, was the ex­pe­ri­ence of watch­ing a Mau­rice Che­va­lier musical from the 1930s. “It was flir­ta­tious, very nice, very joy­ful. Just be­fore the war, maybe 1935 or 1936. And ev­ery­one was danc­ing, like in­side a cham­pagne bub­ble.

“I was en­joy­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence, and at a cer­tain mo­ment it wasn’t pleas­ant. It sud­denly struck me that not only all those peo­ple were dead today, but at the very mo­ment they were Lily-Rose Depp and Natalie Portman in Plan­e­tar­ium, above; Depp in her role as 1930s spir­i­tu­al­ist Kate, left shoot­ing the film, maybe a few years af­ter, half of them were dead.

“It had a pow­er­ful im­pact on me, and maybe in a way the film is the an­swer to that.”

There are var­i­ous kinds of ghosts that haunt Plan­e­tar­ium. One is the fig­ure of Natan, a pro­ducer who has dis­ap­peared from French film his­tory. His story is com­pli­cated and much of it still con­tested, but there’s no doubt he was a pi­o­neer­ing force who ac­quired the Pathe com­pany in 1929 and brought it into the mod­ern era, be­fore he was im­pris­oned by French au­thor­i­ties dur­ing the war, then sent to Auschwitz. He was Zlo­towski’s in­spi­ra­tion for Kor­ben, a man de­ter­mined to mod­ernise the in­dus­try, who is vul­ner­a­ble to ru­mour and in­nu­endo and the tar­get of anti-Semitism in the press.

Zlo­towski is a grad­u­ate of La Femis, the fa­mous French film school. Only later did she learn that its lo­ca­tion was the place where Natan had his stu­dios. “He was much closer to me than I re­alised,” she says. “I was re­ally pissed off that no one had told me the story of this man be­fore.”

For Salinger, who plays Kor­ben, Plan­e­tar­ium is a film about many things. It’s in part about the era of col­lab­o­ra­tion and oc­cu­pa­tion, a pe­riod in France’s his­tory with which he says the coun­try has still not come to terms.

It’s about the na­ture of film and its abil­ity to cap­ture what is al­ready lost, with all the con­tra­dic­tions this brings.

He men­tions Jean Cocteau’s maxim, “the cin­ema is death at work”, and talks about an ac­tor whose ex­am­ple feels im­me­di­ate to him. “I love James Ma­son — he still in­spires me. He’s there.”

And you don’t nec­es­sar­ily have to be­lieve in ghosts to feel there are things you can ex­pe­ri­ence yet can’t ex­plain. “When you lose peo­ple, when they die — for a while, and some­times for a long while — they are still around you, still there. What is this thing?” opens na­tion­ally this month. af­french­film­fes­ti­

trav­elled to Paris as a guest of Unifrance and Alliance Fran­caise.


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