El Planeta is a pleasantly quirky amuse bouche of a dark comedy shot in black and white that takes place in post-recession Spain. First-time feature director and writer Amalia Ulman and her real-life mother Ale, star as daughter Leo and matriarch Maria, who are living on borrowed time in a small apartment that they no longer can afford.
Given that both women are highly attractive, they try to maintain the façade of trying to keep up with the indulgent lifestyle they previously enjoyed. They make sure to sport their stylish best when they go out in public, with Maria regularly wearing a fur coat. But we get an ugly taste early on about how dire their circumstances really are when Leo meets up with a man in a café who is willing to pay her to perform a rather nasty sex act.
Viewers will likely breathe a sigh of relief when, Leo — who likes to make her own quirky fashions — instead sells her sewing machine to a Craigslist buyer in a park. She next visits what looks like dollar-like store so she can buy some bobby pins. She flirts with the handsome Asian clerk named Amadeus, who allows her to gather up a batch of bracelets and her hair pins gratis. But her mom — who double-backs to the store to do a bit of shop-lifting –is caught in the act and let go.
Somehow, Leo sells herself as some sort of social-media influencer as she talks to a guy from New York who wants her to fly to the Big Apple to add style to a magazine cover shoot involving the launch of Christine Aguilera’s comeback LP. Alas, there is no way she can afford a plane ticket.
At some point we learn that Leo’s father died in the not too distant past, but it seems he departed without leaving much money if any for his loved ones. Meanwhile, her mom spends a large part of her time writing the names of her so-called enemies on little pieces of paper and freezing them out of her life as she tosses them into the bottom of her fridge.
There is a certain ‘90s sensibility to the somewhat rambling plot as the women end up at a restaurant that is the source of the film’s title. The pair somehow maintains that they represent a politician of sorts in order to indulge in a tasting dinner for free.
At certain points, everyone – especially the deceitful men they encounter – has their own grifting tendencies as well and hope to take advantage of the ladies. El Planeta aka The Planet shows that almost everyone is on the make as while the storefronts in the small Spanish town are boarded up. Oddly enough, a glitzy awards event is taking place with the country’s royals in attendance along with Martin Scorsese.
As Maria is fitted for a pricey dress one would wear to such an event, she tells the saleswoman helping her, “I like Casino a lot – but Sharon Stone, not so much. I don’t know, her face is squarish. People say she’s very smart! I prefer Kim Basinger or Michelle Pfeiffer.” Now that is a topic ripe for debate as the credits roll and the lights literally go out on own heroines.