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Review: Madcap mother-daughter duo enlivens downward social spiral of ‘El Planeta’

Two women on a city street in the movie “El Planeta.”
Ale Ulman and Amalia Ulman in the movie “El Planeta.”
(Rob Kulisek/Utopia Distribution )

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Fundamentally a parent-child affair, the idiosyncratic “El Planeta” from director Amalia Ulman diffuses the smoke and mirrors of its eccentric antiheroines through tragicomedy. Ulman stars as Leo, an unemployed stylist back living with her superstitious mother María (the filmmaker’s own mother, Ale Ulman) in the coastal Spanish town of Gijón.

Clad in designer coats and accustomed to a life of luxury, María’s situation, and in turn that of her daughter, has devolved into a precarious ordeal on the verge of eviction. But her delusions of grandeur, as she shoplifts or fends off imaginary enemies, could earn her a place among the kookiest of women in Pedro Almodóvar’s oeuvre.

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Artist Amalia Ulman makes her feature filmmaking debut with “El Planeta,” which she wrote, directed and stars in alongside her actual mother.

Yet, a muted desperation underscores the humorous front of this debut feature. As the pair stumbles to keep up appearances, Leo’s encounters with a prospective romantic partner or an employer reveal bits of truth about her in an ingeniously casual manner. Filmmaker Nacho Vigalondo (“Colossal”) has a cameo during the movie’s awkwardly memorable opening that sees Leo consider sex work as an escape from her financial instability.

Tonally intricate, though in places too engineered to amp up the quirkiness, the escalating stakes highlight the profundity of the women’s solidarity in their shared woes. In a vivacious turn, Ale Ulman manifests an effortless charm that, for the majority of the story, functions as if their troubles were passé, prioritizing elegance. Here’s a movie about two fashionable survivors that portrays them as endearing even in their self-deception.

Rendered in unassuming black-and-white, Ulman and cinematographer Carlos Rigoa infuse the small-scale piece with a marvelous sense of place. The locations and its people, enthusiastically awaiting the arrival of Martin Scorsese for a major event, are intently part of the visual tapestry. A whimsical score and cheeky transitions complement Ulman’s zany cinematic personality piquing our interest for future endeavors.

Taken from a restaurant the mother-daughter duo frequents, the name “El Planeta” seems to speak closely to the characters’ crumbling personal universe. Leo and María — and, judging from their on-screen rapport, Amalia and Ale as well — spin on a wavelength where their irrational lifestyle and coping mechanisms are logical to their comprehension; we are only lucky to be invited to visit this two-people planet for a short while.

‘El Planeta’

In Spanish and English with English subtitles

Not Rated

Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes

Playing: Starts Oct. 1, Landmark Westwood


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