Amalia Ulman's El Planeta
Amalia Ulman is an artist who knows how to build a myth into a story. Her film El Planeta borrows from the chronicle of mother-daughter petty crime duo Justina and Ana Belén (Las Falsas Ricas de Gijón) and is influenced by Ulman's own experience of financial stress in post-crisis Spain in 2008. The film tells the story of Leonor, or Leo, Jimenez and María Rendueles in 82 minutes while making clear references to auteur cinema with wipe transitions (Jean-Luc Godard), long and wide, often stationary shots (Claire Denis), and black and white (two filmmakers come to mind for this stylistic choice, Jim Jarmusch, who also lends his deadpan tone, and Hong Sang-soo, with his focus on domestic intimacy). This film is highly scripted and involves no improvisation. Where this movie succeeds is in its look at poverty and eviction with a sense of lightness through elegant satire and is not too preoccupied with bringing forward an overwhelming sense of guilt or theatricality that is most usually felt when writers or directors from a different economic class try to embrace these issues in their work. The characters in this film are imperfect, some may say lacking in virtue, though viewers should understand they were experiencing immense pressure and acted as many people in their situation would. Leo and Maria are hustlers, but I wouldn't call them con artists; El Planeta is a portrait of two individuals who are dealing with the loss of comfort as eviction from their cramped apartment looms over their heads. As they wait for the government to figure out that they don't have money they live on borrowed time. Leo reminds her mother not to get caught stealing in one scene before they go their separate ways, although Maria sees prison as an opportunity for free food and free housing.
Originally Ulman did not plan on casting her mother, Ale Ulman, for the role of María, but it's apparent that she is graceful, a natural actor, and fully embodies the intense state of delusion her character is trapped in that pulls you into this film. There is not one moment where you could not call María dignified. Even though the apartment she lives in no longer belongs to her, she makes it a point to keep it clean. Given the budget and her mother's participation in the film, Ulman decided that she should act alongside her. Ultimately, the film is not about Ulman's character Leo, who is constantly being forced back into the reality of her situation, rather it is about the distinction between the private life María and Leo share with each other and the public life they perform. But how far can your delusions take you? You can ask this very question when thinking about the Instagram-based self-obsessed soap opera that is Excellences and Perfections or the story of Bob the pigeon (who makes a cameo if you look closely at the stickers on Leo's laptop). These narratives are told picture by picture, or frame by frame like a storyboard for a film. I'd argue Ulman has always been a filmmaker because of this, and her experience as an installation artist, writer, and photographer clearly aided her in making her first feature length film. Her performances are more about fiction and storytelling than breaking down the idea of authenticity, as with the character in Excellences and Perfections, who did not start from scratch. Ulman drew from her own personal narrative to start that story and then began to slowly weave in a fiction that considers how women are perceived in the culture system. Both the idea of how one performs themself and the gossip that follows was as integral for building the characters in Ulman's Instagram performances as it was in El Planeta. However, the characters who lived in those photographs never fully become human, unlike Leo and María who remind us through their mannerisms and the brief moments of vulnerability they share crying, fighting, and comforting each other. The empathy you feel for them because of the turbulence of their domestic life is balanced by moments where it's hard to feel anything but fascination when the two take up their charming and glamorous public personas.
El Planeta is a movie that you can easily fall in tune with. When I first watched it at Lincoln Center and MoMA's New Directors, New Films festival in March it pulled me in and whispered how the story would unfold. As my eyes watched I listened closely as the audience laughed at every witty joke. A few minutes before the film credits rolled there was a knock on the door. Leo thought it was someone delivering a package for her and asked her mother to get it, but my intuition told me there was an ending drawing closer that would soon shatter the world Leo has been struggling to keep together. Moments after, you watch as María puts on her fur coat and refuses to go outside without it, while Leo sits in the kitchen oblivious to the fact that her mother is being escorted by the police to her new home. María heard there would be food there.