El Planeta


Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

El Planeta
"With jump cuts, fancy fades, and towels featuring cartoon owls and penguins, Amalia Ulman draws from her work as an artist and includes it seamlessly into the world of cinema." | Photo: Carlos Rigo Bellver

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.

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.

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 arrives 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 is great at setting a mood which almost imperceptibly transforms during each scene, a bit like a sweater that you didn’t notice you were wearing inside-out. Maria, wearing a fur coat, carrying two big boxes, walks along Gijon’s harbor promenade in the rain. From this slightly dreamy start of El Planeta, the following encounter between Leo and a man (Nacho Vigalondo) in a café shakes us wide-awake.

On the wall behind them looms a big sailboat, promising adventure. The man’s unpleasantness resides in his total inability to see a human being in front of him, as his own shame and self-righteousness for the transaction he proposes have made him numb. The ludicrous imbalance finds form in the perfect absurdity of a book for €19.99 and what Leo is willing to do for it. “If I eat more cookies, I’ll have a poor person’s body,” she tells her mother, and the recurring mystery of “going to Rachel’s to eat” is never explained. It might as well be her version of “returning video tapes” from American Psycho.

A fashion editor (Saoirse Bertram) who contacts her regarding a job in New York is another fine example of a brutal system of careless, matter-of-fact exploitation. He offers the broke Leo one night in a hotel “on us”. The flight from Spain she would have to finance herself to come and style the cover. “The bigger the name, the less money,” he says and touches his chin.

Mom, whose coat and bunny ear headband give her the flair of a Grey Gardens character, and who hasn’t worked a day in her life, is getting more and more concerned as the electricity is shut off and they are running out of bearable options. Ale Ulman is wonderful in balancing the bubbling despair with a great calm and sense of humor. Mother and daughter miss their cat Holga (the Ulman’s real cat Holga couldn’t make it to Spain for the shoot) who graces the walls and a pillow.

When Leo meets Amadeus (Zhou Chen) in a 99 cent store, both wearing zebra outfits, hope flares up again. Every interaction is different, though, when eviction looms. What appearances need to be kept up? What determines which lies, the film asks incessantly. While trying on a dress to presumably wear to the upcoming gala for Martin Scorsese, which is everywhere in the news, Maria tells the shop assistant how much she likes Casino, though “not so much Sharon Stone”. She prefers Michelle Pfeiffer and Kim Basinger. Chatting about the world of movie star likes and dislikes, is her bitterly needed remedy against the cold harsh terror of the future, where she “doesn’t qualify for any help”.

With jump cuts, fancy fades, and towels featuring cartoon owls and penguins, Amalia Ulman draws from her work as an artist and includes it seamlessly into the world of cinema. A shirt by the young New York fashion designer Martina Cox she wears in El Planeta, has a little window right where the heart is. Stay for the end credits, as yet another twist unfolds.

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.

Reviewed on: 28 Apr 2021
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Amid the devastation of post-crisis Spain, mother and daughter bluff and grift to keep up the lifestyle they think they deserve, bonding over common tragedy and an impending eviction.

Director: Amalia Ulman

Writer: Amalia Ulman

Starring: Amalia Ulman, Ale Ulman, Nacho Vigalondo, Zhou Chen, Saoirse Bertram

Year: 2020

Runtime: 79 minutes

Country: US, Spain

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