Hauling two packages home under both arms, Leonor’s (Amalia Ulman) mother María (Ale Ulman) bursts through the door of their small apartment, proclaiming she will never return Amazon purchases for her again. Her daughter isn’t home. She’s sitting alone in a café waiting for a potential client – a massive mural of the sea behind her, galley riding along the waves above the empty chair – although, at first, it seems like an awkward first date. Whom she is waiting for arrives and, after small talk, turns someone business-oriented, she asks what turns him on; his response: “I like to get pissed on.” “Whatever turns you on, turns me on,” she meekly assures him after a beat.
The Older Man (as he is credited in the script and played by Spanish “Timecrimes” filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo) then asks Leonor how much the service they are discussing will cost. She “read on a blog” that 500 euros a night seems fair. He sits back and scoffs her number off. He can get fellatio for 20, he assures. Leo justifies that there is this book she’s been eyeing for exactly 19.99. They agree to reconnect on WhatsApp later and off he is to his daughter’s ballet recital. After sitting in silence for a few moments, Leonor asks for the check, stealing today’s paper from the adjacent booth.
Writer/Director/Lead Actor Amalia Ulman’s feature film debut, “El Planeta,” is a wonderfully sly feminist comedy, wittily reflecting on imbalanced gender dynamics and class consumerism, almost accidentally feeling like a poignantly satiric answer to all the idiotic “Martin Scorsese only makes gangster movies that glamorize white guys” discourse on the internet. A little bit Jean-Luc Godard and a little bit Greta Gerwig, Ulman’s black and white freshman feature is an absurdly and assuredly packed jack-in-the-box that’s short, sweet, and, incidentally, a quirky sharp, vainglorious commentary on these post-crisis, Robinhood Redditor times.
Taking place across a single week and set within the small town of Gijón, Asturias in Spain, following 2009’s economic crash, neither Leonor (who often goes by Leo) or her mom have a steady job in order to keep their electricity on. Recently moving back in with her looks-obsessed mother following the death of her father, the pair of women are driving each other a wee bit insane. María (the director’s real-life mother, making her acting debut) won’t even let Leonor drink water out of a glass, as those are being used for curses at present, alongside scraps of paper in the icebox, the house increasingly becoming an unofficial shrine to their deceased cat, Holga.
Often making offhand comments such as wishing buses could fly so traveling abroad would be cheaper, or noting that “prison is free housing,” Leo’s mother – formerly used to a middle-class existence – develops a shoplifting habit, pre-occupied with superficialities, insisting they turn the TV volume up when celebrity names such as Martin Scorsese are mentioned. The acclaimed artistic filmmaker is going to be in town soon, working on a new project called the “Scorsese Factory.” While being fitted for a new outfit she cannot afford, María remarks to the saleswoman that she “liked “Casino” a lot, but Sharon Stone, not so much” (this is a very Film Twitter film).
Much of the humor houses a similar brand of self-awareness, contrasting said awareness, or lack thereof, between Leonor’s careful choice of words in conversation, the thoughtless responses of her mother, and the aloof men she interacts with through the film; the second of whom, a Fashion Editor (Saoirse Bertram), wants Leonor to make Christina Aguilera up for her Solange Knowles-esque comeback – he will pay for her hotel but not the overseas flight to New York, their intimate language implying he may also be her Sugar Daddy in some capacity (like “Hustlers” the movie offers a non-judgmental look at what drives women in poverty to sex work). A large portion of the film follows Leo meeting a cute but clueless retail worker (Chen Zhou, credited as The Younger Man), gifting her with the items she wished to purchase; he’s just watching the shop for his Uncle after all, plus can’t work the register. When she expresses not being fond of heels later, he asks if it’s “a feminist thing?” Ulman’s performance playing off these Dude Bros is utterly human, often hilarious, and quietly heartbreaking.
On top of being a crafty flick with a tight narrative that flies by, from a formal perspective, Ulman’s movie is visually stunning, full of crisp, clean compositions, as if the ghost of Eric Rohmer’s shot Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma;” it’s an outstanding and economic use of real-life spaces, juxtaposing wide and long lenses. Department store escalators stretch to eternity. Windows, walls, and street corners collide. Dissolves are diamond-shaped when Leonor and her mother walk past eviction notices and boarded-up buildings; stores everywhere are closing and only cookies and pastries are present in the apartment. On the surface, “El Planeta” may seem like fun Sundance junk food yet it’s so much more; a profound debut film – the announcement of a major comedic talent with an ear and eye for artistic ideas that are truly meaningful not just creatively fetishistic. However, María might argue it’s only too hot to wear a coat with zebra stripes when it’s no longer in fashion and it’s getting warm outside. [A-]