'El Planeta': Film Review | Sundance 2021

El Planeta
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

From left: Ale and Amalia Ulman in 'El Planeta'

Bittersweet 'n low.

Amalia Ulman's droll first feature stars the writer-director opposite her real-life mother as an impoverished pair shrugging off destitution in a post-financial crisis town on the Spanish coast.

Multidisciplinary artist Amalia Ulman makes an appealingly idiosyncratic first foray into features with El Planeta, a captivating throwback to the shaggy aesthetic of micro-budget '90s New York indies that plays like Grey Gardens with a hint of early Almodóvar. Ulman and her real-life mother Ale play a reduced family unit in the Spanish seaside town of Gijón, living beyond their dwindling means in willful denial as the foundations crumble beneath them. The plotting is haphazard and laced with meandering detours that don't always pay off, but there's a distinctive voice in the deadpan humor and poignancy in the story's collision of aspirational self-delusion with blithe resignation.

Central to the film's off-kilter charm is the natural chemistry and ease of the rapport between the writer-director and her mother. She drew inspiration from their own past experience of poverty and homelessness, as well as from the 2013 tabloid case of "Las Falsas Ricas," mother-and-daughter scammers who passed themselves off as well-heeled socialites until it came time to settle the overdue tab.

The other defining asset of El Planeta is its vivid sense of place. The New York-based Ulman was born in Argentina but raised in Gijón, on the northwestern coast of Spain, which becomes a larger embodiment of the lingering bite of the financial crisis, its boulevards lined with empty, graffiti-covered storefronts and for-rent signs. Shot by Carlos Rigo Bellver in crisp black and white with a descriptive eye for composition, the off-season town deftly mirrors the decline of its principal characters' lives from the opening image of a murky, overcast sky.

María is first seen wrapped in her fur coat, struggling along the seaside esplanade in the wind and rain, awkwardly balancing online purchases she's returning for her daughter Leo, a fashion student back from London to help out her recently widowed mother as she faces eviction. Leo (short for Leonor) is introduced in a café — the galleon mural behind her gives the scene a fun visual pop — meeting a prospective client (sci-fi director Nacho Vigalondo) for what appears to be her first attempt at sex work. But his lowball fee offer sours the transaction.

At home in their modest apartment, María is busy "freezing" her enemies, cursing them by clipping names from the newspaper or writing them down and balling them up to drop in the icebox. She is far more saddened by the loss of her cat — getting nostalgic over cellphone videos — than her husband, who left her shortly before he died. Meanwhile, the radio reports news of sewage washing up in the surf and Martin Scorsese coming to nearby Oviedo to accept the Princess of Asturias Award. (The director received that annual arts honor in 2018, though El Planeta is unspecific about its time frame.)

Using playful screen wipes to mark the scene transitions and a tonally appropriate plinky-plonky score by DJ Burke Battelle, who composes under the name Chicken, the film strings together vignettes from María and Leo's unstructured days and nights.

Leo gets a Skype call from a fashion editor (Saoirse Bertram) offering her a stylist gig on a Christina Aguilera comeback cover shoot ("She's going for a Solange Knowles kind of vibe, I guess"). But she would need to pay her own airfare to New York, the exposure supposedly being the reward.

Mother and daughter go to the elegant local restaurant that gives the film its name, with María spinning lies about Leo's allegedly huge international Instagram following and in-demand career while telling the waitress to charge the meal to a politician boyfriend, who may or may not exist. She does the same while being fitted for a dress for the Scorsese gala, seeming untroubled by the reminder from the seamstress that they'll require payment soon. Ditto with the groceries she orders by phone.

Late in the film, once the electricity in the apartment has been shut off, María reveals on a phone call how she was screwed over on alimony by a divorce lawyer, given no help by a social worker and, as a housewife, is ineligible for unemployment benefits. But El Planeta is a long way from Ken Loachian social realism.

Mostly, girlish María just carries on as if everything will magically be resolved — she teaches herself English, dreams of going to Argentina and taking tango lessons, goofs around using oranges as Dolly Parton breast implants and shrugs off her daughter's concerns about having only cookies and pastries to eat as a "dissociated diet." When Leo warns her to be careful about her reckless credit fraud, she seems untroubled: "I don't have a retirement plan. If I get caught, I'd have free housing and food."

Leo is marginally more conscious of reality closing in on them. She sells her sewing machine and hand-stitches her punky-chic garments using fabric remnants and bits of junk, including a top with a transparent plastic breast window. "I don't know, feminism?" she says, explaining the look to her mother.

While María casually shoplifts, Leo chats with Amadeus (Chen Zhou), a flirty Chinese guy visiting from London and looking after his uncle's store. This leads to a promising first date, but only after they've slept together does he nonchalantly reveal he has a wife and son.

Some of the dialogue seems semi-improvised, particularly in scenes between María and Leo, which benefit immeasurably from the relaxed spontaneity of Ulman and her mother. The looseness of the film in terms of conventional narrative feels just right for its snapshot of two people adrift, keeping up appearances while shutting out the encroaching fears of their alarming financial situation.

In her first acting role, Ale Ulman is especially delightful, armoring herself against dreary reality in her fur, sunglasses, (fake?) Burberry handbag and immaculately styled hair. There's a fantasist's obliviousness in María that gives her a slight touch of Norma Desmond or Blanche DuBois, though her arc is never played for pathos or melodrama. The low-key comedy remains predominantly affectless, almost subversively so, even when the circumstances turn completely dire. It's a disarming touch that a carefree mother-daughter shopping spree at the mall precedes the inevitable fall from grace.

The Scorsese gala provides an amusing coda, with news video showing Spanish monarchists on one side of the crowd-control barriers and republican protesters on the other, all of them kept a safe distance from the arriving VIPs. It's a sly nod to the cushioning isolation of the one percent. In the midst of it all, flying high on a masquerade she has no intention of abandoning, is María, resplendent in the dress she had made for the occasion. While both she and Leo are victims of the economic downturn and its shrinking opportunities, their refusal to define themselves as poor gives them a radical dignity.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Dramatic Competition)
Production companies: Holga's Meow Pictures, Operator, Memory
Cast: Amalia Ulman, Ale Ulman, Chen Zhou, Nacho Vigalondo, Saoirse Bertram
Director-screenwriter: Amalia Ulman
Producers: Amalia Ulman, Kathleen Heffernan, Kweku Mandela
Director of photography: Carlos Rigo Bellver
Costume designers: Fiona Duncan, Amalia Ulman
Music: Chicken
Editors: Katharine McQuerry, Anthony Valdez
Sales: UTA
82 minutes