The global financial crisis of 2008 hit Spain especially hard. While the country’s economic disaster officially ended in 2014, the last seven years have been characterized by a different kind of turmoil: a social, political, institutional, and territorial upheaval of sorts that has continued to negatively impact Spanish life long after the country’s economic troubles allegedly ended. From debates over the monarchy and separation of powers to questions of political corruption and lack of transparency to the lingering effects of the financial downturn like unemployment, poverty, and homelessness, Spain is still far from being on the road to recovery. El Planeta — written, directed, produced by, and starring multimedia artist Amalia Ulman — documents a single week in the life of a mother-daughter pair getting hit from all sides by this barrage of crises in the small Spanish coastal town of Gijón. This film is not interested in dwelling on the heaviness of all that tragedy, though — El Planeta instead wants to find the humor.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. That’s why Leonor (Ulman), a.k.a. Leo, is sitting in a café with a much older man, listening to him explain his particular set of desires. As he crudely describes what exactly he’d like to do to her in exchange for a measly 20 Euro, Leo wonders if debasing herself for such little pay is even worth it. In the wake of her father’s death and her subsequent move-in with her mother María (Ale Ulman), Leo has been at something of an impasse since moving to Gijón. With her work as a stylist on the sets of London magazine shoots on pause, she’s had difficulty finding respectable employment in a country that claims to be post-crisis but still emanates devastation from every foreclosed home and boarded-up business on street after street. Her mother is no better off, either — in fact, María actually dreams of being arrested so that she can enjoy some guaranteed food and housing.
El Planeta progresses in quick, episodic bursts, giving the viewer fleeting glimpses at seven days in the lives of Leo and María and the extreme lengths they’ll go to grift, con, and scheme their way into the bourgeois lives they feel they deserve. Not only does this structure create the feeling of a series of interconnected comedy sketches, but it’s also the best way to portray these lives in the interim. When all the days start to blend together during periods when everything’s in flux, only the abstract moments that break the pattern of monotony are the ones that end up making a lasting impression. One could call El Planeta plotless, but, from Daisies (1966) to Napoleon Dynamite (2004) to Amalia Ulman’s debut feature, sometimes plotlessness is the point.
Besides, plotlessness isn’t the same as being meaningless, and El Planeta is nothing if not meaningful. There’s a significant weight to the aimlessness here: Leo knows that she needs money. María knows that an eviction awaits them. This knowledge is what pushes each of them ever closer to their final destination. For Leo, that’s the comfort of a companion who can provide for her. For María, that’s the security of a prison sentence. Both know for certain what that they want, it’s just the getting there that proves to be difficult. Leo searches for the perfect man to take her in, María looks for the easiest way to get taken into custody, each clinging to the only lifestyle they’ve ever known — one of fur coats and designer handbags — as it’s slowly pulled from their grip by the hands of fate.
Interestingly enough, Amalia Ulman belongs to the next generation of filmmakers — like Sean Baker and Aneesh Chaganty — who actively use Letterboxd, giving audiences a chance to peek at what films they’ve been watching, what they’ve been enjoying, and what they consider their favorites. In Ulman’s case, that’s a lot of Hong Sang-soo, John Cassavetes, Tsai Ming-liang, and pre-Code Hollywood productions. Each of these can be seen as influences on El Planeta, whether intentionally or not. Just look at El Planeta’s binary structure, following both Leo and María’s exploits, which is a trademark of Hong’s. Or El Planeta’s loose, spontaneous feeling, which could easily be credited to Cassavetes and his improvisational style. The film’s static camera, its medium shots, and its leisurely pace could certainly be derived from Tsai, and its wry comedy-of-manners humor feels like a descendent of an Ernst Lubitsch or Charles Brackett-Billy Wilder film.
There’s one filmmaker whose presence is felt in El Planeta who hasn’t been named: Martin Scorsese. A running gag throughout its 82 minutes, Scorsese is less a palpable influence and more a physical entity in Ulman’s film. His impending arrival at an upcoming gala where he is set to receive Spain’s fabled Princess of Asturias prize looms over the events of El Planeta, existing almost as a guiding light for Leo and María over the course of the week. Not to read too much into the joke, which is humorous and slight enough to stand alone as a throwaway gag, but the reverence with which Scorsese is treated by the locals and the media forms such a sharp contrast to the way the actual issues facing the people of Spain are covered — one would be remiss to ignore how intentional this feels, no matter how innocuously it’s presented.
The citing of El Planeta’s perceived touchstones and authoritative figures isn’t to suggest that the film is derivative or unoriginal in any way — truthfully, it’s the opposite. Much like Ulman’s video essays and performance art, her film is media-obsessed but not media-reverential. Leo and María’s tongue-in-cheek burlesque of the lifestyles of the rich and famous is staged to address the pressing issues of class, of sexuality, and of gender in a so-called post-crisis Spain. That nation is still a long way off from the haven it pretends to be when the royal family welcomes the likes of Martin Scorsese. Like the greatest products of every New Wave, El Planeta is as iconoclastic, unconventional, innovative, and arresting as can be. Where Ulman heads from here remains to be seen, but it ought to be seen nonetheless.
El Planeta will screen this Friday, Nov. 19, at 7:00 p.m. at Webster University's Moore Auditorium.