Glamorous consciousness

Amalia Ulman on El Planeta and opening New Directors/New Films

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Amalia Ulman on the opening scene in El Planeta with Maria (Ale Ulman) in Gijon, Spain: “I really wanted to set the tone of the city. That’s the city where I grew up and one of the biggest challenges is the weather.
Amalia Ulman on the opening scene in El Planeta with Maria (Ale Ulman) in Gijon, Spain: “I really wanted to set the tone of the city. That’s the city where I grew up and one of the biggest challenges is the weather.

Amalia Ulman’s El Planeta, starring the director/screenwriter and her mother, Ale Ulman, is the perfect opening night selection for the 50th anniversary of New Directors/New Films, hosted by Film at Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art. Shot by Carlos Rigo in beautiful black and white, co-edited smartly by Katie Mcquerrey (Matthew Barney’s River Of Fundament, Redoubt, and longtime Coen brothers supervising editor) and Anthony Valdez, El Planeta takes us back to the filmmaker’s former hometown, Gijon, Spain.

Amalia Ulman on New Directors/New Films: “I was very excited and happy to be opening this festival. Because of the great reputation it has for showing new works.”
Amalia Ulman on New Directors/New Films: “I was very excited and happy to be opening this festival. Because of the great reputation it has for showing new works.”

Cleverly used references to Martin Scorsese, Ernst Lubitsch (think of Herbert Marshall and Kay Francis in Trouble In Paradise, and maybe Gary Cooper with Claudette Colbert in Bluebeard’s Eighth’s Wife), Milos Forman's Amadeus, David and Albert Maysles’ Grey Gardens, Katsuhito Ishii’s The Taste of Tea, and Jean Renoir’s Rules Of The Game enter the picture.

The importance of the opening scene, the look of the clothes coming about through Fiona Duncan’s New York fashion designer connections, a Martina Cox shirt, The Met Costume Institute’s upcoming American Fashion exhibition, Leo’s three unglamorous encounters with men, the glamour in pre-code era movies, the editing, and planning a way out - all this and more came up in my conversation with Amalia.

Leo (Amalia Ulman) and her mother Maria (Ale Ulman) face eviction. No one would suspect it from the way they look, always dressed to the nines in their respective fashion. Leo, who worked as a stylist while living in London, has a number of less than sanguine encounters with men, while Maria casts paper-in-water spells in their freezing apartment and comes up with some tricks to gather something to eat for them. The food comes in bulk, either all pastries for days or all fruit. A fake invite to a tasting menu leads them to the restaurant that shares its name with the title of the film.

Ulman’s tone is the lightest when the situation is at its most dire. Playfulness accompanies hardships, dialogues make unexpected U-turns, haircuts and heels matter. The world of closed-up shops on rainy streets belongs just as much to the reality beyond a provincial Spanish town, as it does to cinema. El Planeta gives a big embrace to both.

Leo (Amalia Ulman) in zebra with her mother Maria (Ale Ulman)
Leo (Amalia Ulman) in zebra with her mother Maria (Ale Ulman)

From New York City, Amalia Ulman joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on El Planeta.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Your film is the opening night of New Directors/New Films. Were you pleased?

Amalia Ulman: Yes, I was very excited and happy to be opening this festival. Because of the great reputation it has for showing new works.

AKT: True. There are wonderful films to discover every year. Just yesterday I had a conversation with Maite Alberdi, who is now Oscar-nominated for The Mole Agent. Her film was a highlight in New Directors/New Films last year. You have a great beginning to your film. You already set us up for what is to come. There is Maria in the fur coat. You set the tone with the harbour, the way she walks. There are a lot of movie references already floating in my head, which you then break. A man walks towards her, he doesn’t react at all. This is not Cary Grant and Doris Day. This is not going to be A Touch of Mink. Tell me about this opening moment!

AU: That opening scene was very important for me, exactly to set the tone, because here you have this glamorous character with her fur coat and stuff but she’s carrying a big box which already makes it comedic because of how she struggles to carry it, but also it’s raining. So her makeup is smudged and all those things. And I think I really wanted to set the tone of the city. That’s the city where I grew up and one of the biggest challenges is the weather.

AKT: It rains a lot?

Amalia Ulman on Maria (Ale Ulman): “My mom loves Grey Gardens. For her it was more of a reference in developing her character …”
Amalia Ulman on Maria (Ale Ulman): “My mom loves Grey Gardens. For her it was more of a reference in developing her character …”

AU: It’s always rainy and windy. You could be having the best day ever but already going outside on the street makes it a terrible day. It sets the tone of the city because it already makes things hard in general to live there. I wanted to introduce the public to that. Especially because people have a very specific idea of Spain which is more like good weather.

AKT: Later on we see all the shop windows of closed stores, which speaks of a city changing drastically. Earlier today I was in Midtown East [in Manhattan] and everything is closed, so many stores and restaurants are gone for good. It felt like a ghost town. Besides Gijon itself, the clothes are important in your film. Everything you wear as Leo is very original. Can you talk a bit about the costume design?

AU: I feel like costume design has always been important for me. In the movies that I always liked. A lot of the references for this film were pre-code era movies and a lot of them depict hustlers and people from bad upbringings, but they always looked very glamorous because that’s part of their hustle. The fashion in these films is always amazing. I feel like all the movies that I like consider the styling as a very important part of the film, as important as the photography or the set design.

The character of Leo is a fashion student, so obviously she was going to be very fashion-aware. I took as example a lot of girls from New York from that time, like three years ago, trends that were going around. I pretty much did the styling of Maria on my own, the mother, because that’s a very traditional style. But I did count on the help of Fiona Duncan, who’s actually a writer but she loves fashion and she’s friends with a lot of young fashion designers from New York. A lot of them lent clothes for the film that Leo is wearing. They’re actually from young designers that Leo is supposed to be. Also, we definitely played with the black and white in the film and chose clothing that looked strikingly good in black and white. All the decisions were very conscious.

Maria (Ale Ulman) with her daughter Leo (Amalia Ulman) treating themselves to a haircut.
Maria (Ale Ulman) with her daughter Leo (Amalia Ulman) treating themselves to a haircut.

AKT: You heard that The Met Costume Institute is doing American Fashion as its subject this year? In September Part One [In America: A Lexicon of Fashion] and Part Two starting in May, 2022 [In America: An Anthology of Fashion]. It will feature young American designers, so maybe some of those will find their way into the show. Andrew Bolton should look out for them. Especially the one with the heart showing.

AU: The window!

AKT: Yes, the window. A long time ago at the Carnival in Venice, I saw a costume that had a window to a transparent belly with a fish swimming in it, like an aquarium. I was reminded of that. Who made the window shirt?

AU: That’s a New York designer called Martina Cox. Her clothes have those windows with little cartons and the plastic. Sometimes they are in the butt area, there’s like two of those. I liked how the costume in that sense became part of the dialogue, because of how the mother reacts to it.

AKT: The headband Maria wears, plus the fur coat - there’s a bit of Grey Gardens in there, I felt. Also as far as the story is concerned, the mother-daughter relationship. Did that enter into it?

AU: Yes, for my mom. My mom loves Grey Gardens. For her it was more of a reference in developing her character to bring in the Grey Gardens to the movie. Because of that I felt that the character of Leo had to be a bit more down to earth, sort of compensating for that.

Amalia Ulman on Ale Ulman on the couch with the Holga cat pillow: “I didn’t want to fly her to Spain for the shoot. So we reference her throughout.”
Amalia Ulman on Ale Ulman on the couch with the Holga cat pillow: “I didn’t want to fly her to Spain for the shoot. So we reference her throughout.”

AKT: I noticed that Holga gets a thanks in the end credits. Holga is everywhere. Is Holga the guardian-angel cat of the film?

AU: She is. I mean, she’s the guardian angel of my life. It was important to have Holga in the film because I was working with my mom in the film and Holga is part of our family. My family is basically my mom and I, and Holga, the cat. But she now lives in the US and she’s very old, so I didn’t want to fly her to Spain for the shoot. So we reference her throughout. I think it added to a sense of loneliness, being cat ladies without a cat. Because we couldn’t even afford to have her because we’re about to be homeless. It’s this sad situation of having an animal as your best friend and knowing you can’t even provide for them. There’s this movie I also liked, called Wendy And Lucy [directed by Kelly Reichardt]. It’s about the dog she loves so much and how she has to let it go because she knows she can’t provide for it.

AKT: Totally heartbreaking. But I’m glad to hear that Holga is still alive.

AU: Yeah, she is sleeping.

AKT: What is the film Leo watches on the computer?

AU: Oh, Rules Of The Game.

AKT: I thought “I know this!” But couldn’t put my finger on it. When Leo and Amadeus are both dressed in zebra outfits, although it’s not zebra, I was reminded of Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert going pajama shopping in the Lubitsch film Bluebeard’s Eighth’s wife. “You’re the stripey type.”

El Planeta poster
El Planeta poster

AU: No, I haven’t seen that one.

AKT: Will you be there for the opening night?

AU: Yes!

AKT: Wishing you the best. Thank you!

AU: Thank you! Nice to meet you.

Amalia Ulman will attend the 6:00pm opening night screening of El Planeta inside the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center. There will be a pre-recorded post-screening Q&A. Both screenings on opening night are already sold out.

Coming up - Amalia Ulman on the three unwise men, working with the editors, a waiting room encounter with overheard conversations inspired by The Taste of Tea, The Nutcracker and Chinese towels, Amadeus, and another Ernst Lubitsch connection.

The 2021 feature committee comprises Florence Almozini (Co-Chair, FLC), La Frances Hui (Co-Chair, MoMA), Rajendra Roy (MoMA), Josh Siegel (MoMA), Dan Sullivan (FLC), and Tyler Wilson (FLC), and the shorts were programmed by Brittany Shaw (MoMA) and Madeline Whittle (FLC).

New Directors/New Films at 50: A Retrospective is running free virtually through April 28.

The 50th anniversary edition of New Directors/New Films runs from April 28 through May 8 with the in-person screenings at Lincoln Center extended to May 13.

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