In the opening scene of Amalia Ulman’s feature debut, El Planeta, Leo (Ulman) parleys with a potential client—her first and only—over the price of a blow job. She wonders aloud if this particular service, which would garner her a measly 20 euros, is truly equal to a book she’s been eyeing that costs the same. Meanwhile, hanging in the backdrop like a rear projection screen is a stretch of kitschy wallpaper depicting a colonial-era merchant ship over placid ocean waters, mockingly hearkening to the glory days of the Spanish Empire.
El Planeta takes place in the northern Spanish town of Gijón, a former industrial hub whose economy today, per Ulman, relies heavily on tourism. As Leo walks home from her rendezvous, wipe transitions of different shapes, like those popularized in silent films, convey the passage of time as a melancholy yet energetic synth score blares and she meanders past empty storefronts with “Se Vende” signs in the window. Deeply impacted by the country’s financial crisis in the late aughts, Gijón is portrayed with the sullen grace of a classic Hollywood streetscape, while the imminent arrival of Martin Scorsese for a local gala has the townspeople and radio announcers in a fuss. “Gijón is poor and everything’s falling apart, yet everything revolves around the arrival of celebrities,” said Ulman in an interview in New York, before a screening of El Planeta at IFC Center. “There’s a statue of Woody Allen in the city next to Gijón, because he once said that this city was his favorite in the world, because of how clean it is. Someone probably paid him a lot of money to show up. I mean, it’s a beautiful place, but why would you?”
The ironic coexistence of glamor and impoverishment is at the heart of El Planeta, which follows Leo and her mother, Maria (played by Ulman’s actual mother, Ale Ulman), as they fastidiously keep up appearances while falling deeper and deeper into debt. Like the tacky image of the conquistador-era vessel—a near-satirical visual considering Spain is hardly the global empire it once was—the nostalgic illusion of wealth and power is about the only thing that remains for Leo and Maria, who waltz around in fur coats and silk scarves while shivering in their apartment devoid of electricity and groceries. It’s only fitting that Leo, an aspiring fashion designer, repurposes clothes from Zara, the Spanish fast-fashion brand known for its cheaply-made, high-end knockoffs. (Ulman calls the retailer Spain’s “national treasure,” its ubiquity among Spaniards akin to “a weird uniform provided by the state.”)
Yet Ulman’s women—grifters and hustlers who’d rather max out their credit cards at the salon than pay the bills—deny us the feelings of pity that a more conventional poverty story might elicit. Theirs is a ridiculous condition of absurdly misplaced priorities that Ulman milks to droll effect in a series of vignettes that gradually reveal the extent of the women’s troubles. Leo and Maria are faux princesses unable to come to grips with their fall from grace after the death of Leo’s father leaves them broke—a stray shot of pastries atop a silver platter recalls the indulgences of Marie Antoinette. Even Leo’s name intentionally parallels the real-life Princess Leonor, heir presumptive to the Spanish throne, who makes an appearance in the (also real-life!) gala footage that comprises the film’s closing credits.
El Planeta marks a kind of homecoming for Ulman, now a self-proclaimed “airport-based” artist who was raised in Gijón after immigrating from Argentina with her family. It was here, in relative isolation from the art scenes and cultural hubs that attracted her, that she began exploring the weird world of the internet: “I was around 12 when I first went online and started getting into weird chat groups,” Ulman recalled. “I’m autistic so communicating through messaging was easier than communicating in person and meeting people outside of Gijón in Barcelona and Madrid. I started posting pictures of myself and getting way too much attention. People started sending me gifts. So I disappeared until I went to art school and returned with the intent of posting as an artistic practice.”
Ulman, a visual artist whose elaborate durational performances have seen her posing as different personas on Instagram (like a kinky escort or a wellness guru), has long demonstrated a fascination with fabricated female identities and the role of consumerism and technology in the production of selfhood. “My [online] performances are always perceived as hoaxes, which is not the case. [With El Planeta] I’m being taken seriously as a creator of fiction, which is a nice change,” said Ulman. “But my performances are mediated by technology in a way that I’m able to control, like selfies, but with the film I’m surrounded by people, so I had to take acting classes to break those barriers.”
Ulman took inspiration from a real mother and daughter grifting duo living in Gijón, though her storytelling process was restrained by a limited budget: “The film was scripted entirely for funding reasons. Because it was my first film, there had to be a very small margin of error and we didn’t have much extra footage. Everything we shot, we needed.” The films of Hong Sang-soo—understated in their irony; often plotless, unfolding at the pace of a winding conversation; and half of which are shot in black and white—come to mind, and Ulman, who admires Hong’s improvisatory approach, also shot El Planeta in silken monochrome, though her reasons for doing so were mostly practical. “I had some early meetings with my cinematographer [Carlos Rigo] and we realized that the lighting in Gijón is terrible,” she explained. “Everything would’ve looked gray even if we shot in color. So shooting in black and white was a way of making the film look beautiful on a budget, since we didn’t have to spend money on color correction. But the black and white ended up being a reference to the Nouvelle Vague and neorealism, because I wanted to work within the templates of European art cinema, which is a kind of joke in itself.”
The fraudulence of Ulman’s protagonists, who cling to the lives they think they deserve, isn’t unlike the sham image of Spain anchored in the long-gone past and warped by the kind of romantic fictions stoked by things like the European art house of the ’60s. Ulman’s Gijón is grounded in contemporary realities: Leo overhears a conversation between two women discussing the class divide between students at a public school; midway through the film, she goes on a date with a charming and wealthy Chinese man, Amadeus (Chen Zhou), who ultimately deceives her. Ulman notes the increase in Chinese immigration and Chinese-owned business over the past two decades, which is indebted in part to the availability of Spanish real estate (Se Vende!) and China’s middle-class boom. “Yet the way [Chinese immigrants] are portrayed in movies is still very racist and old school and based on these stupid assumptions—as if they don’t know how to speak the language,” she added. “The reality is that many of these immigrants are extremely educated, so it was important to me to show that reality with Amades, who is handsome and knows exactly what he’s doing.”
Yet it’s in the delusions, myths, and frivolous distractions that Leo and Maria sustain themselves—the glittery promise of a “marvelous” romance, the “curses” that Maria casts on her enemies by freezing pieces of paper, the countless cat videos. “We do silly things when we feel powerless, it’s a way of creating an illusion that we’re in control,” Ulman noted. Such an observation is both bleak and endearingly absurd, a diagnosis that can be applied to the film at large as well as the performative femininity that Ulman tackles in her Instagram art. “I like to blur the lines between comedy and drama,” Ulman said. “I don’t like taking myself too seriously.”