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Film Review: El Planeta
by Pat Frickey

Amalia Ulman, Spain|USA 2021

Spanish filmmaker Amalia Ulman knows how to get your attention. In the opening scene Leonor (Amalia herself) looking like a prim and proper convent-educated schoolgirl is negotiating with a prospective, dumpy, middle-aged sex client over the price of giving him a blow job. Leonor soon gives up the prospect as it not being cost effective, “Is it worth sucking a dick for a book?” Soliciting is not something she really does. She is exploring ways of making income to support her mother. Not long before, Leonor was an up-and-coming stylist in London, but then lost her job, and has since returned to Gijón, Spain, to look after her widowed mother María (Ale Ulman). Shot in black and white, Gijón is a depressing town in winter, with shuttered-up storefronts and se vende (for sale) signs everywhere.

Mother María is glamorous in her fur coat walking through the Gijón streets as though she owns them. She doesn’t. Her shoplifting goes unnoticed/unpunished dressed as she is. Her ordering expensive meals with Leonor in tow at the exclusive restaurant El Planteta goes on the tab of some real or imagined local politician. She talks local shopkeepers into giving her shoes on approval, only to be brought back a few days later hardly worn. María is a scammer, a grifter, a petty thief, but always looks like a million bucks when she leaves the soon-to-be-evicted-from apartment she and Leonor now share. She is living the lifestyle she once enjoyed but no longer has the means to keep.

Their chemistry is undeniable: this mother and daughter duo María and Leonor are in real life mother and daughter. Their playfulness, dignity, and irreverent denial of any looming disaster are infectious. Amalia Ulman wrote, directed, and starred in this black comedy, and with a brilliant stroke cast her own mother, who had never been in a film before, as the irresistible lead, María.