In El Planeta, visual artist Amalia Ulman writes and directs her first feature, a quirky comedy with a dark side rooted in its protagonists attempts to stave off homelessness through scams and grifts. Ulman plays Leonor (Leo) opposite her real-life mother, Ale Ulman, who plays her character’s mother María. While Ulman and her mother are both playing fictional characters, there are parallels between the artist and her art: Leo, like Ulman herself, was in a bus accident years prior that has left her with chronic pain in her legs, and the actual mother-daughter pair struggled with eviction and the threat of losing their home much like their fictional counterparts.
Much of El Planeta feels like an eccentric little home movie, as Ulman captures her hometown with a charming mix of humorous disdain and affection. The coastal city of Gijón is perpetually gray, and not just because the film is in black and white, and Leo wonders why anyone would choose to live out their days in a place so dull and rainy. The town is especially bleak during the height of the country’s economic crisis in 2009, when the film is set. The plot is lackadaisical and meandering, with money and the lack of it at the core of most interactions, as Leo wanders about town searching for money, pleasure, something to buy, or someone to buy those things for her. She meets a man in a cafe and discusses an arrangement for a sexual relationship, and debates the rates he is willing to pay; she walks around the street, and wanders into shops; she goes out for dinner with a man she meets, Amadeus, and becomes disappointed to discover he is married with a child. It all sounds like it could easily be the plot of a French New Wave film, to which the color palette and unexpected editing style is indebted. This is a portrait of malaise and disaffection, as the women try to scam and schmooze their way into money or free things, with a remarkable sense of nonchalance even as their power is turned off and they face eviction.
The elegant back and white may lend a surface-level classiness to the film, but these women are gritty and shameless, doing whatever they need to do to get money or weasel their way out of paying for things. Yet just as the money starts to run dry in this series of scams, the charm starts to wear off, as well. While their situation is sympathetic, the characters themselves are not, quickly moving from one self-absorbed topic to the next while stringing together just enough to get by. It has plenty of humor, yet each scene feels almost like a standalone sketch, and the best bits feel almost like throwaway lines. As a result, there is little forward momentum, only a feeling of slow unravelling.
Ulman’s 2014 performance art piece “Excellences and Perfections” was a masterpiece of Instagram art, and explored the multiplicities of online identity and the construction of self-image. While its visuals may feel retro, El Planeta is haunted by the specter of technology and the fear of faulty connections or missed opportunities in the online realm. Mother and daughter frequently discuss online purchases and return policies, and Leo takes photos of herself with her laptop, frequently looks for her charger, searches for service, and tries to deal with faulty internet connections. This does not quite live up to the same level of biting social commentary and image manipulation as Ulman’s previous work, yet there are flashes of some interesting social commentary on faking it ‘til you make it, in life and online, even if it is not fully realized. Leo and María are image-conscious to a fault, relying on appearances only; in the finale, when police arrive for María, she pauses to fix herself up in the mirror and puts on a fur coat and sunglasses before leaving with them, and it’s a bleak statement on where her priorities lie in her attempts to seem polished and carefree.
The film is admittedly quite pretty to look at, and Ulman’s artist’s eye is apparent in each artfully composed streetscape and how she makes painterly frames out of video chats and selfies. But if too much emphasis is placed on appearances, then we are left with a film that has not quite enough comedic substance to show behind its facade; or perhaps, it is just that the humor is so understated that you might miss it at first glance, a little bit of sleight of hand that leaves you only realizing what happened when it hits you later. Either way, Ulman is a talent who has begun to find her own oddball energy in film – whether you laugh at the jokes, roll your eyes, or stifle a sob at the absurd tragedy of it all.