Playing a vaguely fictionalized version of herself alongside a similarly quasi-autobiographical performance by her own mother, US-based Argentine-born director, writer and actor Amalia Ulman’s El Planeta is a charming lo-fi feminist comedy about a mother-and-daughter grifting duo. With the death of her father, the promising but struggling fashion student returns from London to Gijón in northern Spain to see her mother Maria (Ale Ulman). The money is running out, and despite Maria’s upbeat, vivacious and seemingly never-ending flair for the con job, there is a seemingly inevitable reality that the two women must face as the walls slowly close in.
As her daughter Leo, Amalia’s character is promising, but apparently not promising enough. Despite threads of hope being there for a bigger life that equals her talent and ambition, the reality of the industry she seeks to work in find it now just slightly out of reach. Constructed through a series of different episodes each woman either individually or together experience, things unravel at an increasing pace as lunch dates paid for through shady deception or as dreams of a romantic relationship are suddenly shattered. But despite their circumstances Leo and Maria keep moving – they have no choice.
Shot in modest, effective black and white by Carlos Rigo Bellver and featuring an opening cameo that has to be seen to be believed by Nacho Vigalondo (one of Spain’s most original and charismatic contemporary filmmakers), despite the bleak nature of the El Planeta’s storyline, Amalia Ulman – in collaboration with her mother/co-star Ale especially – crafts a world so honest and authentic that it grants her the remarkable ability to house in El Planeta a strong and very funny comic through-line. Currently playing at the online version of the 2021 Melbourne International Film Festival via the MIFF Plays platform (available in Australia only), El Planeta is refreshingly original in its rethinking of the grifter film, adding humor but never it sacrificing its humanity.