Sundance Review: Amalia Ulman’s ‘El Planeta’

El Planeta is as goofy one-off, a singularly eccentric sort of imaginative home movie in which writer-director Amalia Ulman co-stars with her non-pro mother Ale Ulman as women reduced to penury in a tiny apartment in Gijon, Spain, where they run little scams but otherwise do nothing to prevent their slide into dire homelessness and poverty. And it’s a comedy, one that will appeal to downtown-style hipsters globally, even if the conceit behind the film has its definite limits. Self-styled eccentricity in and of itself can charm but only goes so far, and the film, which world premiered over the weekend in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition lineup at the Sundance Film Festival, offers little beyond that.

Considering themselves “witchy grifters,” the women don’t possess an honest dollar between them but at least at the outset have a bit of luck shoplifting and putting lavish meals on tabs. There’s no great future in this approach to life, but they’ve gotten by so far. Still, the string might be running out.

Located on the northern coast, Gijon is nicely situated and looks relatively clean and proper, but whether it’s for real or the way Ulman shoots it (in handsomely sharp black-and-white), the city looks sadly vacant and forlorn, populated mostly by old retirees and full of boring shops selling the same things they were offering a decade earlier. It’s Dullsville.

Many scenes resemble little stand-alone skits or jokey routines; Amalia tries to score a quick trip to New York, sells a sewing machine to a woman outdoors, a weird sexual encounter for money is entertained and Amalia distracts a shop clerk while Mom stuffs her bag with items. The women run their scams blithely and have fun doing it, without any outward signs of desperation or shame, which lends the first part of the film an unusual air of blissful irresponsibility, even if what they’re doing is fundamentally obnoxious, not to say illegal. Anyone inclined to be even mildly judgmental about people not taking responsibility for their actions will find their behavior morally distasteful.

But even as a sympathetic viewer might begin to become concerned over the sustainability of such a lifestyle, the women continue to keep their noses in the air without any visible sense of concern, much less panic. The electricity is turned off in their flat, but when Ale is advised that homelessness is imminent, her immediate response is to get her hair done and shop for shoes. Divine would have approved.

It’s sketch comedy after a fashion, populated mostly by stand-alone scenes that, at least for half of the film, trade on the women’s emphatic belief that they can just continue to run out the string and keep things going by their wits; after all, they always have up to now.

Clearly, things are far more dire than they’re willing to admit, and the film’s most prolonged interlude features a date Amalia has with a dashing Asian man that blows up in her face when it becomes clear that they have very different ideas about whether compensation was to be involved. At last, Amalia has to face the dire reality of their predicament, even if Ale doesn’t entirely; prison, after all, offers free housing. When the moment of truth arrives, Mom is ready for it, wearing sunglasses and a big fur coat.

Don’t ask how or why, but the film concludes with footage of a real-life black-tie event in the city attended by Martin Scorsese and the king of Spain. This ending is no more or less eccentric than anything else in this curious one-off that, for better or worse, leaves one in a good mood and certain that you’ve never seen anything quite like it before.

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