Sundance 2021 Review: In “El Planeta,” the World is Amalia Ulman’s Oyster

I yearn for the day that “El Planeta” might eventually appear on the big screen, where the lush black-and-white cinematography of Amalia Ulman’s cunning comedy set in Gijon will surely sparkle, yet it was likely for the best that it was first seen at home during the virtual Sundance Film Festival where I didn’t have to be embarrassed for laughing quite as loud as I did, muffling the sound so I had to rewind the film on separate occasions to be sure I hadn’t missed anything. There’s a lot going on in the feature debut of the multidisciplinary artist, yet its charms are quite simple, direct and omnipresent as it tells of Leonor (Ulman), a would-be fashion designer who has moved back in with her mother Maria (Ale Ulman) in Asturias, which has been particularly hit hard by the economic downturn in Spain.

Maria spends her mornings reading the local paper, “freezing her enemies” in her mind as she looks at the pictures of politicians, and while she and Leo have the basic necessities in their humble apartment, any sense of authority that may have existed between them has been leveled by sharing the same plight, as much as Maria may feel entitled to a grander life or some superiority over her daughter. For her part, Leonor has been increasingly desperate to make ends meet, though you aren’t made aware of this when she first meets with a stranger (Nacho Vigalondo) on what could be assumed to be a blind date, a savvy sleight-of-hand that Ulman deploys throughout “El Planeta” where scenes have a way of springing surprises on you as much as her when a lack of context leaves audiences adrift in the same sea that she’s being forced to navigate without much direction.

Leo doesn’t flinch when it’s revealed she’s considering offering up sexual services of an aberrant nature to the stranger she met online — it’s telling that it isn’t the deviant things he’s asking for don’t throw her off, but deciding whether the cost of fellatio would actually be worth the price of a book she has in mind — but the outrageousness of the request is in line with a world where the normalization of perversity in a variety of forms, practiced from the highest levels of government to the streets, has made a way forward increasingly fraught. While Leo keeps busy pulling together scraps for increasingly outré outfits (the brilliant designs by Ulman and Fiona Duncan serving as a constant comic wellspring), informed of a potential upcoming gig with Christina Aguilera, Maria ekes out elegance wherever she can, seizing upon a local chef’s invitation to try out a tasting menu before introducing it to the public or using the (uncertain) promise of Leo’s work being featured at an Asturias tribute to Martin Scorsese to game other designers into giving her clothes, perhaps making it onto an influencer’s Instagram feed.

Ulman’s choice to cast herself and her own mother as the leads was surely not the obvious one when neither had prior acting experience nor is it in any way vain, yet it pays dividends throughout as the two trade soft-spoken barbs that have a history behind their tone where you know what has been easily dismissed and what cannot be. Besides shrewd directorial decisions, Ulman also has brilliant comic instincts as an actress, able to get away with murder with her slightly aloof and breezy demeanor and despite Leo’s lack of control over where her life is heading, there’s a precision in getting at the character’s disorientation, drawing on a playfully baroque, discordant score from Chicken and an unhurried but sharp rhythm to the film’s editing. There may be little logic to the world we’re all a part of now, but Ulman makes perfect sense of the one she’s created in “El Planeta,” making one wish they could spend even a little more time inside.