Amalia Ulman’s El Planeta

Nacho Vigalondo and Amalia Ulman in El Planeta (2021)

The doors to movie theaters in New York began cracking open again a couple of weeks ago, and Film at Lincoln Center has been welcoming audiences back with in-person screenings of Azazel Jacobs’s French Exit and the new restoration of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1974). Starting today, FLC and the Museum of Modern Art are presenting the fiftieth-anniversary edition of New Directors/New Films, a selection of twenty-seven features and eleven shorts from fresh talent that’s caught the eye of programmers for both institutions. Tickets for the twenty-five-percent capacity screenings at the Walter Reade Theater are going fast, but the program will also be available virtually nationwide.

ND/NF 2021 opens with El Planeta, the debut feature from Amalia Ulman that became an immediate critical favorite when it premiered at Sundance in January. “I wasn’t sure what to expect because I only knew Amalia as a multidisciplinary artist,” Miranda July tells Anna Marie de la Fuente in Variety, “but from the very first scene, my heart started to pound with that feeling of discovery . . . a brand new, totally modern, cinematic voice.”

Ulman, who was born in Argentina, grew up in Spain, studied in London, and now lives in New York, has presented installations and video and net-art works at Tate Modern, the New Museum, the Frieze Art Fair, Evelyn Yard, and Whitechapel Gallery. She has been hailed, as Gilda Williams mentions at Artforum, as “the first great Instagram artist” and is probably best known for Excellences & Perfections (2014), a four-month-long performance on Instagram, in which Ulman rolled out a succession of three personas—“cute girl,” “sugar babe,” and “life goddess”—and created what Interview’s Patrik Sandberg calls “a stylized facsimile for a life of halcyon consumerism.”

In the fall of 2019, Ulman, working with a shoestring budget and a five-person crew, began shooting El Planeta, which “describes the static, banal side of a globetrotting, expatriate life that Ulman has both probed and embodied throughout her career,” as Travis Diehl puts it in a succinct but excellent primer on the artist for frieze. Ulman plays Leonor, known to everyone as Leo, and she’s “a born star,” writes Gilda Williams, “an expressive and mysterious object of desire blessed with endearing vulnerability, an unreal beauty suggestive of Disney’s Snow White, and stupendous dress sense.”

Leo is, after all, a fashion stylist, returning from London to her hometown of Gijón, a modest city on the northern coast of Spain, to live with her mother, María, played by the director’s real mother, Alejandra Ulman. A few years ago, Amalia’s father and Ale’s ex sued the artist for ownership of her Gijón apartment and won. The trauma informs El Planeta, as Ulman explains in Sordid Scandal, a performance commissioned by Tate and presented last year as a PowerPoint presentation. But El Planeta is also inspired by the real-life mother-daughter team of Justina and Ana Belén, who scammed restaurants and boutiques in Gijón out of thousands of euros in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008.

Leo and María are playing the same game. When a tab arrives at their table, María tells the waiter that her close friend, a politician who may or may not exist, will cover it, and she’s believed simply because Leo and María look wealthy. “El Planeta’s premise, as well as Leo and María’s lovable eccentricities (the former’s oddball sense of style, the latter’s penchant for putting curses on her enemies), brings to mind Grey Gardens,” suggests Keith Watson at Slant, referring to the 1976 documentary by Albert and David Maysles, codirected with Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, about Big and Little Edie Beale, another mother and daughter struggling to keep up appearances even as financial ruin stares them down. “Stylistically, though,” writes Watson, “the film—a brief, bittersweet comedy of human behavior observed with a relaxed yet intently focused eye—is much closer in spirit to the work of Hong [Sangsoo] and Philippe Garrel.” And Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov is reminded of Eric Rohmer.

Leo briefly considers sex work but abandons the idea when her potential john (played by Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo) offers her a mere twenty euros in return for a sexual favor. She takes a job fashioning a comeback for Christina Aguilera but has to hock her sewing machine to pay for the flight to New York since “exposure” is to be her only real compensation. “On paper,” writes Susannah Gruder for Reverse Shot, “Leo and María sound insufferable, but Ulman’s film is far more nuanced, painting the two as victims more than criminals. After Leo advises her mom to be careful when shoplifting, she responds ‘I don’t have a retirement plan. If I get caught, I’d have free housing.’”

Ulman tells Le Cinéma Club that “a lot of movies about issues like poverty and evictions are overwhelmed by a sense of guilt because, usually, the directors and writers are from a different class and feel it is their duty to portray it that way. As if the poor are inherently pure at heart and have no other interest in life than finding a little job. I watch a lot of pre-Code movies, and these issues are always tackled with a good dose of humor and a lot of glamor. 1930s movies are full of hustlers and they are never pitiful.” Ulman is already at work on her next feature, set in Argentina and bursting with color and a cumbia soundtrack, as well as a Spanish television series set in the 1990s and droning with “really good Spanish shoegaze.”

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