Ale Ulman and Amalia Ulman in El Planeta (2021), dir. Amalia Ulman (image courtesy Sundance Institute)

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

Kambole Campbell is a freelance writer and critic based in London, with work appearing in Empire Magazine, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, The Independent, The Guardian, Birth.Movies.Death. and Polygon....