Sundance 2021: El Planeta, by David Bax
Amalia Ulman’s El Planeta is the most Los Angeles-feeling movie that’s not actually set in Los Angeles I’ve ever seen. From the beginning, there’s a running joke about not knowing how to dress for the weather because while it’s not quite cold, it’s not exactly hot either, a familiar conundrum to anyone who’s lived in L.A. in the months between November and June (I’m currently writing this in February in my San Fernando Valley apartment with the window open but my socks on). And then there’s the characters’ pre-scientific superstitions in the midst of the modern world. In El Planeta, it’s curses; here in Los Angeles, it’s a shocking number of otherwise reasonable-seeming people who have a very specific idea of what it means for Mercury to be in retrograde and that it actually matters. But maybe that’s more universal than I’m giving it credit for; maybe in a world where so many of us–including El Planeta‘s two main characters–are socially and financially adrift, the old traditions have regained their appeal.
In Gijón, the seventh-largest city in Spain, Leonor (Ulman) has moved back in with her mom, María (Ale Ulman, the director/star’s actual mother) after the death of their father/husband. At least, that’s their story. El Planeta suggests that Leonor’s return from London had just as much, if not more, to do with a lack of money and a floundering career in design.
That all makes El Planeta sound like one bummer after another, though, so let me assure you that this is a comedy and a drily hilarious one at that. Look no further than the cheesy PowerPoint wipes in between scenes. Perhaps that’s meant as a commentary on Leonor’s tacky sense of style. She’s not particularly well-equipped to defend herself against such accusations; when María asks her about a risqué shirt she’s wearing, Leonor’s response amounts to something along the lines of, “I don’t know, feminism?” At least she knows that looking the part of someone who has it all together means having the right politics, whether or not she actually cares about them enough to understand them.
And yet El Planeta is not satire. It’s not mocking Leonor and María; on the contrary, the movie loves them. Ulman recognizes that her characters belong to a new economic anxiety, the push to hustle while maintaining the illusion that you live a life of leisure. Buying new clothes while the electricity gets shut off in your apartment isn’t irresponsible, it’s social survival. This is especially true in Leonor’s industry, where she’s expected to freelance for little money but plenty of “exposure.” If she’s going to be exposed, she’s going to have to keep up appearances. Future low-paying gigs may depend on it. It may be funny that Leonor stands around in a tiny, unheated apartment worrying that if she eats too many carbs, she’ll have a “poor person’s body” but it’s also, to her, a legitimate concern living, as we do, in a world in which you often are what you are perceived to be.
It’s also funny, on the surface, that Leonor and María spend more time mourning their late pet cat than their departed patriarch. We don’t really know what went on in the family before we met them but El Planeta does help us understand that, when this mother and daughter appear to be only skimming the surface of life, what they’re actually doing is whatever it takes to keep their heads above the water.