This year, New Directors/New Films opens with Amalia Ulman’s debut feature film El Planeta, a cool choice for MoMA and Film at Lincoln Center, two institutions that generally shy away from any youth-facing programming. Granted, ND/NF tends to be a more hospitable space for hipper, zeitgeisty curation than the festivals and series otherwise presented by these venues, but there’s still often a broadness to the selection committee’s interpretation of “new” that doesn’t consistently account for contemporary cultural resonance (alas, it wasn’t so long ago that Patti Cake$ was the fest’s opening night selection). And so it’s encouraging to see ND/NF position Ulman, an artist whose work is very much in conversation with the current cultural moment, at the front of their festival; a confident statement regarding cinema’s immediate future from both artist and curator.
Meanwhile, for Ulman, this New York City premiere of El Planeta announces her as a legitimized filmmaking voice, though she’s been a working conceptual artist for around a decade now. Many of her projects have involved cinematic performance and narrative, as filtered and refracted through mediums like social media — her most famous piece, “Excellences and Perfections,” was staged over various Instagram accounts — and PowerPoint. If anything, El Planeta represents a shift into more conventional storytelling for Ulman, a slight pivot that feels rather effortless and undaunted by the old structures and parameters of feature filmmaking.
Shot in digital black and white using a relatively tiny 4k camera, and using gauche iMovie-esque transition animations, El Planeta presents as a sort of meandering, lo-fi, post-mumblecore comedy, though its script and cinematography are much more motivated than those descriptors suggest. Ulman casts herself in the lead role alongside her actual mother, Ale Ulman, and sets the film in Gijón, Spain where she grew up, implicitly blurring the lines between performer and character while never explicitly addressing this meta angle in the film proper. El Planeta’s mother/daughter duo are a pair of aloof scammers, formerly quite wealthy, but thrust into destitution in the wake of Spain’s recent economic recession and the passing of the family patriarch. Seemingly unable to imagine a life without designer clothing and beautiful restaurant foods (or perhaps, more accurately, ushered along by unquestioned inertia), mother and daughter resort to petty theft and dumb grifts in order to maintain their image, all while eviction looms in the background.
As codependent figures symbolic of declining empire and hollow bourgeoise performance, El Planeta’s protagonists will inevitably draw comparisons to those of the Maysles Brothers’ Grey Gardens — Ale Ulman’s performance as delusional matriarch has definite Big Edie vibes — but this film’s characters (by nature of it being scripted by its star) are far more dynamic, Amalia Ulman’s Leonor afforded narrative tangents that humanize and complicate: an awkward attempt to break into sex work with a terse, half-interested prospective client (a surprising Nacho Vigalondo cameo, free of vanity), a meet-cute with the store clerk she and her mother shoplift from that turns into an extended date, and then… something else entirely. These plots give us more of Leonor beyond what can be easily satirized, and bring the world that El Planeta depicts better into focus. It’s a world where narcissism is an expected baseline personality trait, where everyone is running a scam and living in a constant state of reaction. This is, of course, the world we live in, and the world we glimpse in Grey Gardens, and Instagram, and so on. But El Planeta makes these connections without flaunting them, translating the universality of these unfortunate tendencies of the human ego into smart, accessible comedy. Ulman’s debut feature might not be completely uncharted territory for the multi-disciplinary artist, but in this medium, she has found exciting new means of expression.
Published as part of New Directors/New Films 2021 — Dispatch 2.