Amalia Ulman’s El Planeta
A comedy about infiltration
The seaside is miserable when it rains. Fairground rides running slick with water, the bleak prospect of a bitter sea; the dreary solemnity of a sunless beach does little to entice a crowd. A moody cloud lingers over the sleepy Spanish coastal city of Gijón in the opening shot of Amalia Ulman’s black-and-white debut feature El Planeta, not so much a momentary pathetic fallacy as it is an indictment of the area’s, and our protagonists’, ongoing malaise.
Ulman, the Argentinian/Spanish performance artist and now filmmaker, grew up in Gijón where in 2013 a mother-daughter duo swindled several local restaurants and businesses, building up payment tabs and promising their fake wealth could eventually pay it all off. “The truth is that they passed as rich very, very well,” one business owner says in a local news report that features as part of a video essay on Ulman’s website about the making of El Planeta. It is this story that provides the backbone of the film’s narrative, with Ulman and her own mother taking the two central roles.
Leonor, or Leo (Ulman), is a stylist based in London, back in Gijón to look after her mother following the death of her father, whose own corrupt dealings have landed the family in financial hot water. Leo attempts to correct the balance of their debts with meager tactics; she sells her sewing machine here, returns clothes to the store there. Ulman’s grim sense of irony means that even when Leo attempts a more advanced approach, offering sex work to a man she meets awkwardly in a cafe, she comes up short. “I’m wondering if it’s worth sucking a dick for a book,” she muses, unimpressed by the client’s offer of payment.
Her mother María, meanwhile, sits at home wrapped in a blanket to fend off the lack of heating in their apartment, scribbling curses on pieces of paper and storing them in the freezer. Critics have described María as Norma Desmond-esque, afflicted by that brand of fading glamour and the inability to let go of luxury. For Norma, it was the movies that got too small for her presence; María feels the boundaries of her life and the law closing in on her, determined to make use of whatever frivolity she still can until the last possible moment.
So together María and Leo charm their way into petty gifts from store assistants, stack up meals on the tab of a mysterious politician boyfriend, spend the dregs of a credit card on department store makeovers. Their dainty thieving is framed by kitschy scene transitions and an organ-heavy score by DJ and producer Burke Battelle (working under the moniker “Chicken”) that floats somewhere between jovial and threatening. Ulman masters an aesthetic of scarcity and cheapness, an effective formal background that emphasizes at once just how arbitrary and excessive the pair’s fleeting lifestyle has been. And though it has all been fun, that lightness is tempered with the damning realities of their life—that a job offer won’t involve money but “exposure”; that the man you’ve just had dinner with, who invited you back to his, is married with kids; or that someone else’s misdealings will have the police knocking at your door.
It’s not a cheerful vision presented in El Planeta, as storefronts and buildings laden with “for sale” signs signal the town’s decline and the broader implications of Spain’s financial crash. The protagonists and their home city are well paired. But there is something incredibly enjoyable about watching Ulman’s film, with its idiosyncrasies and unflinching, often silly, humor. The way the filmmaker observes her characters and their interactions feels delicately reminiscent of South Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo, laced with a touch more sarcasm. The rapport between mother and daughter in particular is charmingly droll, never saccharine, and the pair bicker and support one another with a natural, unaffected ease.
“A comedy about eviction” reads the film’s logline on Ulman’s website and while that may be the film’s looming threat, El Planeta presents itself more as a comedy about infiltration. It’s a concept that Ulman knows well—perhaps her most famous work as a performance artist Excellences & Perfections. In 2014, Ulman undertook a four-month-long Instagram scam during which she amassed thousands of followers by presenting a fictional online life. It’s somewhat amusing now to think that Instagram was once deemed a site for presentations of authenticity, but that is exactly what Ulman preyed on during the performance. Her manipulation of social media showed how easily fiction could infiltrate the beliefs of a loyal audience.
El Planeta also proudly documents the act of infiltration in its construction as much as in its plot. Leo and María’s arguably anticapitalist manifesto for the last days of their freedom is one of infiltration, entering spaces and carrying out activities that their lack of wealth should deny them. In making the film, Ulman also managed to get footage of her mother in character attending the real life Princess of Asturias Awards featured on the local news. María appears on camera and speaks to the broadcaster, her freshly trimmed blond hair resting on the fluffy lapels of her lavish, ankle-length fur coat, fiction worming its way into reality. It’s give and take with Ulman, borrowing the film’s narrative from truth and returning an inverted favor.
Still, the moment where infiltration becomes eviction must arrive and it does so in the film’s most sobering scene. There is only so long María can outrun the consequences of her husband’s, and now her own, misdeeds. At least in prison she will be fed and sheltered, she supposes, as she slinks out of the apartment at the police’s request unbeknownst to Leo who waits in the kitchen. “Mom?” Leo calls out, the question ringing with a fear and uncertainty that Ulman’s film, with its offbeat, pithy tone, mostly avoided. It is left unclear whether Leo’s own moment of eviction will arrive or if she will continue their grift solo, getting by from day to day in a world of manufactured appearances.