The debut feature of director, writer, and actress Amalia Ulman, El Planeta is a warm and intimate work detailing the precarious economic standing of post-recession Spain. Building upon her work as a performance artist, navigating the boundary between the fictional and the real, Ulman’s angle is low-key and personal, and puts elements of the artist herself in front of the camera. El Planeta focuses on the filial bond between Leonor (Ulman herself, wry and vulnerable, often bemused) and her mother María (Ale Ulman, the director’s actual mother) as they try to get by and maintain middle class appearances through various minor grifts.
Failed by unemployment services and freelance gigs offering”exposure” instead of actual compensation,, and appalled by the town’s supposed resources for support, Leonor and her mother cut corners where they can — borrowing power from the library, keeping the lights and heating off, eating for free where they can. The film itself is named for a restaurant to which the mother and daughter are invited for a free tasting of their new menu, an opportunity they of course seize. The event itself isn’t the centerpiece, though there’s nothing of the sort in El Planeta. With its multiple, diaristic vignettes the film at times recalls Ulman’s five-month online performance piece Excellences & Perfections (2014), in which she emulated extreme makeover culture by staging believable imagery via embedding her own life into the art, and vice-versa..
There’s some amusing deceptiveness to how Unman crafts each scene, demonstrated in the opening. What seems like a coffee date between Leonor and an older man turns out to be her considering a sex work transaction, though its subtle framing doesn’t belittle the profession. That judgment is reserved for the man trying to swindle her, who has the gall to suggest “a blowjob is worth 20 euros.” It’s a conversation shot in a couple of quiet long takes, broken in two by a subjective shot of the man throwing his head back in laughter, the moment slowed down and studied for an extra second, a moment where Leonor’s mindset becomes crystal clear, as she reconsiders whether it’s worth “sucking a dick for [the price of] a book”.
El Planeta is less interested in creating a narrative through-line than it is in compiling minute encounters that alternate between warm and funny, and frustrating and heartbreaking. Ulman opts for a restrained approach to portraying characters’ personal and financial struggles. Cinematographer Carlos Rigo mostly keeps the camera at a distance, framing the quiet, naturalistic performances and ephemeral interactions from arms-length. Its gentle eccentricity combines with stripped-down, digital black and white visuals, recalling Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s Frances Ha, though this is a film more concerned with familial dynamics than just contemporary financial unease. Ulman occasionally breaks from that calm, distant style through subjective, almost point-of-view shots that draw close to each face, holding brief moments in quiet suspension. Additional quirks include a jagged synth score and intentionally cheap-looking scene transitions, but the film remains otherwise committed to charming, straightforward observation.
El Planeta isn’t so much about grifting as it is about simply sitting with these characters through the minutiae of their daily lives; there’s a political backdrop but little in the way of interaction with it outside of the points of view of Leonor and her mother. Any direct commentary on the ignorance of the upper classes (along with a slightly surreal Martin Scorsese cameo) is reserved for the film’s final moments. Ulman’s commentary is instead implicit: with supportive systems absent, only the punitive ones make themselves known, as people are punished simply for needing help and working outside of official means to get it.
El Planeta premiered as part of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
Coasting the Topography of South Asian Futurisms
As part of Hyperallergic’s Emily Hall Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators, Sadaf Padder presents an exhibition to offer insight into her curatorial process.
I’m a Florida Drag Queen and I’m Scared
I’m truly at a loss for what to do for work and what kind of life I can expect to live.
Pratt’s 2023 Fine Arts MFA Thesis Exhibition Is On View in Brooklyn
The two-part exhibition features the work of 41 graduating artists across disciplines, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, and integrated practices.
An Artist’s Hopeful Vision of the Ocean
Indonesian artist Mulyana crafts a tactile, mystical world in which fish, whales, and coral reefs coexist with sea monsters.
An Introduction to “Afrogallonism”
Serge Attukwei Clottey explores Ghanaian culture and identity through discarded jerrycans and other found materials.
The Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation Presents The Feminine in Abstract Painting
Curated by Jennifer Samet and Andrea Belag, this group exhibition in NYC explores the feminine through aesthetics, as opposed to identity or gender.
A Ride With Liz Cohen
Nothing in the artist’s personal biography could predict that she’d one day become a car builder and bikini model.
LA’s Hammer Museum Wants to Be Seen
After two decades of renovations, the museum that calls itself a “well-kept secret” reopens with a mission to be more visible.
NYU Steinhardt Opens 2023 MFA Thesis Exhibitions
Taking place at 80WSE Gallery in New York’s Greenwich Village, Part I is on view from late March through April while Part II opens in May.
AI-Generated “Dope Francis” Fools the Internet
Many thought the picture of Pope Francis in a puffer jacket, created using Midjourney, was the real deal.
1,400-Year-Old Mural of Two-Faced Man Found in Peru
Historians hypothesize that the Moche paintings could represent artists’ attempts to experiment with portraying movement or narrative.
Miniature Worlds: Joseph Cornell, Ray Johnson, Yayoi Kusama
Through small-scale works, this exhibition at the Katonah Museum of Art in New York examines Cornell’s prominent role in the lives and careers of Johnson and Kusama.
Louvre Shutters as Pension Plan Protests Intensify
President Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 has sparked widespread demonstrations across the country.
They Managed to Mess Up an Art Heist Movie
There must be a lesson in Vasilis Katsoupis’s film Inside about the vacuousness of the art market or the claustrophobia of exhibition spaces — I just don’t care.