MOVIE OF THE WEEK September 24, 2021: EL PLANETA

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Part Grey Gardens, part Kajillionaire, and part Paper Moon, writer/director Amalia Ulman’s feature directorial debut, El Planeta, is also wholly its own beast. The film is a naturalistic, observational dramedy about a mother and daughter in Gijon, Spain, who find themselves facing impending eviction and doing whatever they need to in order to get by. Filmed in expressive black and white, El Planeta is a thoughtful, slice-of-life character study.

Leonor (Ulman) and her mother, Maria (Ulman’s real-life mom, Ale Ulman), live together in what appears to be a rather small apartment in Gijon, a city left reeling — like so many others — in the wake of economic crisis. As the movie unfolds, we learn that Leo had been living in London but came back home after her father’s death. Now the two women drift through their days, trying various schemes and shortcuts to keep themselves fed and sheltered. Leo discusses the possibility of paid sex work with someone she met online…but also sells a sewing machine for cash. Maria brazens her way through a fancy meal…but also shoplifts small items from the grocery store. Anything to keep the lights on a little longer.

Male characters are either targets or sources of income in the world of El Planeta; the only one with a significant amount of screen time is Amadeus (Zhou Chen), the enigmatic store clerk/intern with whom Leo forges an unexpected connection. But uncomplicated happiness doesn’t seem to be in the cards for Leo and Maria — every step forward seems to come with two steps back. Still, they have each other, and they always seem to have another idea up their fashionable sleeves.

The film unfolds in an unhurried way that feels almost improvisational; Ulman lets shots linger and doesn’t rely on exposition to fill in Leo and Maria’s story. Instead, we learn it in bits and pieces, building our own picture of who these women are and what’s shaped them. We’re never quite sure we can trust them (is Leo really an experienced celebrity stylist, or is that another con?), but that doesn’t stop us from rooting for them. — Betsy Bozdech

Team #MOTW’s comments:

Loren King Amalia Ulman’s strange and seductive first feature, set in a beleaguered Spain, is a mother/daughter black comedy that borrows from Ulman’s own experience — she acts opposite her real-life mother, Ale Ulman — but the authenticity goes beyond that. The naturalistic, atmospheric, sometimes meandering film, shot in a crisp black and white, picks up when both mother and daughter are surviving by their wits, a bit of thievery and a hearty dose of denial, dining out on the tab of an unseen benefactor who may not even know them. They face eviction and have no money for food or electricity. None of this is portrayed with melodrama but rather with deadpan, absurdist humor. El Planeta is a debut every bit as original, personal and sometimes surreal as Jim Jarmusch’s or Spike Lee’s. Let’s hope Ulman gets the same critical and industry attention.

Pam Grady: Financially ruined and facing eviction, a mother and daughter in Gijon, Spain, scheme and grift their way through life in an attempt to stay one step ahead of the law and other consequences of their actions. Artist turned writer-director Amalia Ulman plays Leo, the daughter in this eccentric duo, opposite her real-life mom Ale Ulman as Maria. The women present a united front against a world they hold beneath them. The Gijon of the film is economically battered with shuttered storefronts everywhere but the overall conditions probably don’t matter. Getting jobs would not occur to these two, not when one can shoplift and grift. Yet, when a date happens to neglect mentioning that he has a wife and child until late in their time together, Leo is put out at the deception. What’s good for the goose is only good for the goose. Luminously shot in black and white, this slim drama is an entertaining character study of people without much character.

Susan Wloszczyna: 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. Read full review.

Marilyn Ferdinand The financial crisis that engulfed many first-world countries in 2008 is that backdrop of this quirky domestic drama that sees a bereft mother and her artsy daughter trying to survive after the breadwinner of the family dies. The film is shot in black and white, perhaps to signal how life has grayed for our protagonists and our vital centers of civilization, represented by one boarded-up shop after another in the coastal city of Gijón, Spain, where this story is set. El Planeta zeroes in on the precarity of women who are dependent on men for their support, but it also critiques the exploitation of workers who are “paid” with exposure instead of money. It’s not hard to see how superstition and desperation would be the refuges for the people on the losing end of the balance sheet, though director Amalia Ulman approaches this subject with a light, distanced touch.

Leslie Combemale Entitlement has its advantages. In performance artist and filmmaker Amalia Ulman’s absurdist comedy El Planeta, Leo (played by Ulman herself) and her mom María (played by Ulman’s real-life mother Ale) have taken up shoplifting, grifts, and scams in an attempt to continue their middle class existence. That they are pretty white women is the major reason why, for the most part, they get away with it. Still, their looks and the status they present to the outside world only gets them so far, and that’s where Ulman speaks to the universal fragility of women’s place in the world. She continues her consideration of class and gender via using middlebrow aesthetics in this approachable but ultimately melancholy cinematic portrait of self delusion.

Jennifer Merin El Planeta is a fine first feature written and directed by and starring Amalia Ulman. It’s a darkly humorous dramady about a daughter (played by Ulmam) and her mother (played by Ale Ulman, Amalia’s mother in real life) who are in financial straits and who turn to grifting and hustling to try to maintain their middle-class lifestyle — and to avoid eviction. The characters and their problems are relatable — the solutions they find are wacky and foolhardy and always entertaining,

Cate Marquis Artist Amalia Ulman’s directorial debut is the absurdist black-and-white Spanish comedy El Planeta, where a young woman and her mother (the director and her real-life mother Ale Ulman) cling to the idea of their once-affluent lifestyle, despite having no money and no electricity and facing eviction, in post economic crisis Spain. In the coastal city of Gijon where they live, where vacant and boarded-up shops abound and there are no jobs, the quirky pair turn to shoplifting and grifting to get by. Meanwhile, the city prepares for an upcoming awards gala to be attended by luminaries like director Martin Scorsese and the Spanish royal family. This Sundance entry is an offbeat tale with hints of Grey Gardens.


Title: El Planeta

Directors: Amalia Ulman

Release Date: September 17, 2021

Running Time: 79 minutes

Language: Spanish, with English subtitles

Screenwriter: Amalia Ulman

Distribution Company: Utopia

Official Website

AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna

Previous #MOTW Selections

Other Movies Opening This Week

Edited by Jennifer Merin

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).