SFF REVIEW: El Planeta (2021)

planeta_posterA mother and daughter rail against their growing poverty in this low-scale Spanish comedy-drama; the feature debut of Argentinian artist Amalia Ulman. It comes packed with outstanding moments of humour and character, but its black and white presentation and relatively aimless plot are likely to consign it to arthouse and festival audiences.

El Planeta is low on narrative and high on incident. Things happen, and they are sometime funny and sometimes dramatic. It never seems to shape into an actual three-act structure. To an extent I feel that is sort of the point: Leonor (Ulman) and her mother Maria (Ulman’s own mother Ale Ulman) live in an apartment that they can no longer afford, wearing coats indoors to stave off the cold and reading in the apartment building corridors once their electricity is cut off. While Leonor tries to continue a visibly unsustainable design career, Maria has become a shoplifter. She walks from store to store in fine clothes and a fur coat, stuffing luxury good into her pockets with as much failure as she has success. The absurdity of the situation forms the core of the humour, yet it is all underlined by such miserable depression that each laugh feels more than a little pointed.

A lot of that misery comes from how Ulman presents the Spanish city of Gijón. Cinematographer Carlos Rigo fills the frame with lonely old people standing around, and endless rows of boarded-up buildings and closed-down retailers. It is a backdrop fully devastated by financial crisis, and enables Leonor and Maria’s own struggle to feel more relatable. The film is shot in black and white, which further accentuates the sense of economic struggle. In terms of presentation there are a few odd touches that do not work as well as the photography: Ulman utilises a number of irritating wipes and editing effects that add nothing, while the musical score is rather ineffective.

Instead the real focus appears to be on the script. Ulman shows off a strong hand with dialogue, and indeed the film’s best scenes are the conversations. An early one sees Leonor negotiate with a strange man (director Nacho Vigalondo, Timecrimes) over becoming a sex worker to satisfy his fetishistic urges. Another string of scenes see her go on a date with a Chinese designer (Zhou Chen) with unwanted results. The film’s scale is small, and its focus is personal, and when it focuses on that it is a remarkable feature debut.

The odd technical quirks get in the way of that intimacy. Ulman arrives on-screen with a strong performance and an entertaining screenplay, and a powerful blend of comedy and drama. If it feels that the characters finish the film roughly where they started, it is because their situation is so inescapable. It is only on a production level that her film struggles. This is an enjoyable and original feature, but there is a sense that whatever Ulman delivers next is going to be the knockout. This is the work of a great talent yet to be fully formed.

El Planeta is currently screening at the Sydney Film Festival. Click here for more details.

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