2021, NR, 80 min. Directed by Amalia Ulman. Starring Amalia Ulman, Ale Ulman, Zhou Chen, Saoirse Bertram, Nacho Vigalondo.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., Oct. 29, 2021
Loosely inspired by the true story of mother and daughter grifters who bilked various merchants in the coastal city of Gijón while one of the worst economic crises in Spain crippled the country (it has yet to recover), El Planeta marks the feature debut of artist Amalia Ulman. Ulman’s work, which stretches across multiple disciplines, is primarily concerned with perception, manipulation, and deception, aligning nicely with this quietly devastating comedy.
Ulman has cast herself and her mother (Ale Ulman) as Leonor and María, respectively, adding a level of verisimilitude to the proceedings. She also happened to grow up in Gijón, seen here as a sparsely populated shell adorned with endless shuttered storefronts. The duo’s fraudulent activities rarely delve into extravagance, but they both maintain a veneer of the haute couture elite outside of their cramped apartment. Shoplifting, deferring payment on meals and sundries “until the end of the month,” and racking up credit card debt are currently sustaining them, but that won’t last too much longer, and Instagram followers will only get you so far. María has resigned herself to a future life of incarceration when the police finally catch up to them, where she’ll at least have room and board. Leonor briefly flirts with a career as a sex worker before being offered a gig on a fashion shoot in New York, but she can’t afford to get there. A one-night stand with a married man leaves her maudlin and listless. A joke blithely referencing the two’s dissociated diet resonates more truth than they know.
Shot in black and white with some quirky wipe transitions thrown in (haven’t seen the classic page-turning wipe in a while), El Planeta orbits around an aesthetic and sensibility rooted in Eighties indie films. But mother and daughter have a comfortable chemistry that surpasses the deadpan material. Their performances are the stars here, even if their celestial bodies don’t seem to be going anywhere.