As the French Film Festival gets under way, Philippa Hawker considers its eclectic line-up and one ghostly offering with star appeal
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. affrenchfilmfestival.org
travelled to Paris as a guest of Unifrance and Alliance Francaise.
I WANT TO BE PROUD OF EVERYTHING I’VE DONE LILY-ROSE DEPP