The frequently complicated relationship between mother and daughter has fostered plenty of cinematic investigation, but El Planeta easily distinguishes itself as a uniquely meta and universal addition to the canon. The film follows London-based fashion student Leo (Amalia Ulman) upon returning to her rainy hometown of Gijón, Spain, after the death of her father in order to comfort her mother, María (Ale Ulman), whose chronic joblessness leaves debts piling high. In order to stave off eviction and support their solidly middle-class lifestyle, the two begin a series of elaborate ploys to scam and scrape by. Leo poses as the girlfriend of a powerful Spanish politician, awarding her the convenient phrase: “Put that on his tab.”
El Planeta finds charm and levity despite the encroaching anxiety of crumbling finances, a fact that has everything to do with the Ulmans’ beautiful on-screen chemistry and the strength of Amalia’s scriptwriting. Humor and misery mingle effortlessly, primarily through evoking the uniquely Spanish tradition of picaresque melodrama, perfectly encapsulated by luxurious fur coats and nonchalant comments of “Thanks, it’s Moschino” as the heat and electricity get shut off.
Ulman’s film fosters an interesting, nuanced conversation about wealth, status and entitlement, standing in stark contrast to other, less-probing recent films such as French Exit. El Planeta is able to remain self-aware where other films have faltered through Ulman’s peppering in her family’s own lived experiences throughout the film. A leg injury Leo sustains, the pair’s financial instability and even the heartache over their dear cat Holga (who is the namesake of Ulman’s production company) are all cemented in fact, allowing for the curtain between fiction and reality to blur in a way that fosters authenticity.
Ulman boasts a keen sense of visual ingenuity, filming in gorgeous but never tawdry black and white and shooting long takes broken up by dreamy transitions. The costume design is also nothing short of an indulgent treat for the viewer, even including the occasional Zara tag sprinkled in for laughs. The score by an artist credited only as Chicken is artful and perfectly moody, another high-point in the production of an otherwise minimalist film.
The film also serves as a larger portrait of the economic precarity that has ravaged Spain since its 2009 economic crisis (as well as the nearly 40-year reign of dictator Francisco Franco in Spain’s recent past). While conservative boot-strap ideology would sneer at these women to “get a job,” the reality is that there are no jobs to get. Spain currently has a staggering 13.96% unemployment rate—down only 1.3% from 2018, the year that the film takes place. The youth of the country are particularly screwed, with virtually no entry-level positions for recent college graduates, forcing them to leave Spain for other European countries with better job prospects. This is hardly a historical anomaly—from 1960 to 1973, about 600,000 Spaniards moved to Germany primarily for work, even documented in Spanish cinema such as 1971’s Vente a Alemania, Pepe (Come to Germany, Pepe). Spain’s primary economic revenues lying in tourism and agriculture also skews the workforce towards cheap, undocumented labor, creating an impenetrable vacuum within the job market.
El Planeta’s end-credit crescendo gets at the heart of national insecurity and delusion, complete with cameos from Martin Scorsese and the royal family of Spain. The nation—and perhaps much of the world—is evidently split between the poverty-stricken who covet the luxuries of the ruling class—happy to worship the ground they walk on in exchange for the dream of one day acquiring wealth of their own—and the poverty-stricken who are sick of watching others devour the resources that belong to the collective. Of course, this leaves room for the opportunists fending for themselves through the channels that the real con-artists among the bourgeoisie have created. In a country with little prospects, this is the only way that boot-strap mentality makes any lick of sense: “Put the boots on his tab.”
Director: Amalia Ulman
Writer: Amalia Ulman
Stars: Amalia Ulman, Ale Ulman, Nacho Vigalondo, Zhou Chen, Saoirse Bertram
Release Date: January 30, 2021 (Sundance Film Festival)
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.