Comedian Joan Rivers famously declared “My daughter and I are very close, we speak every single day and I call her every day and say the same thing, “pick up, I know you’re there.”
El Planeta (2021) observes a mother-daughter relationship dynamic that might have reminded Rivers of her tempestuous bond with her own daughter. Writer-director Amalia Ulman focuses on brassy, confident women who find themselves tiptoeing around one another when they are thrown together. She portrays Leonor, a successful young stylist who struggles to keep up with the demands of her job. Leonor lives with her mother, María (Ale Ulman), in Gijón, Spain and they both find it difficult to earn money. María has never had a job and Leonor has to travel overseas in order to get work. They are both aware of the fact that their inability to pay the bills might lead to eviction from their apartment, but they try their hardest to ignore the fact that they are under financial strain. As they grow more and more concerned, they find it more difficult to communicate and take out some of their anger on one another.
Ulman’s script is unusual in that it features sparse dialogue and very few wisecracks. Often screenwriters fall back on the idea that all mothers and daughters are one liner delivery machines that just can’t stop yelling at one another. Ulman is smart enough to realise that women can convey discomfort or resentment without having to verbalise their thoughts and feelings in ten-minute monologues. Terms of Endearment (1983) and Postcards from the Edge (1990) convinced so many filmmakers that audiences only wanted to see flamboyant, outgoing mothers who spend all day browbeating their daughters. Leonor and María are vivacious and full of life but we get to see them when they are just trying to relax after a long, exhausting day. They are worn down and cranky but they don’t seem to be looking for a fight. When they cut each other down a few pegs, it is done in a casual, efficient manner. This would seem to cut down the dramatic stakes of the film, and yet it blossoms into something that is more rich and rewarding than it might have been.
Scenes are cleverly laid out to build up to a point where we expect some of Leonor’s tension to be released, before throwing a curveball at you. Conflicts are rarely resolved in a conventional manner and we sense that many of Leonor’s troubles will follow her around for the rest of her life. Ulman’s talent as a director shines through when she is staging small scale scenes in the apartment that the women inhabit. She builds up the location as a cramped, suffocating area that leaves María feeling boxed in. This idea is amplified by the fact that Ulman lovingly captures the constantly shifting facial expressions and emotions of the actors that appear on screen. This is not a vanity project by any means but Ulman does have a talent for framing her own facial features and emphasising her dark, enigmatic eyes. She plays a character who seems to wilfully hold herself back from expressing too much emotion and scenes are shot and edited in a way that supports Ulman’s performance. She had her fingerprints all over this project and in each role that she took on, she made judicious decisions.
The work of editors Katharine McQuerrey and Anthony Valdez is occasionally showy to the point of distraction and does not seem to coalesce with the realistic, pared down visuals that appear in most scenes. There are scene transitions that might remind you of 1970s talk shows and they set you up to expect something wacky or zany. It’s almost like seeing a black-and-white Robert Bresson feature that randomly includes the sort of editing that would typically appear in one of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s gonzo fantasy films. Perhaps the friction between the conflicting styles of filmmaking was meant to make a point about the mundanity of life in Gijón, but it never really convinced as more than an effort to dress up content that was relatively un-ostentatious.
One also can’t help but wonder whether this concept would have been more effective if it had been applied to the television format. This would have given Ulman more time to flesh out the characters and capture the intricacies of their day to day lives. She does succeed in packing a lot of information into a 79-minute feature but it might have packed more of an emotional wallop if audiences had been able to spend more time with Leonor and María. We live in the age of the prestige miniseries and El Planeta could have ventured into the same territory as Normal People. This is not to say that stories that don’t involve grand, epic adventures are not cinematic. It is just easy to imagine Ulman’s style of writing and direction fitting into the scheme of a television show. It feels like a couple of ideas were left on the table and they could have been brought to life with more time, money and resources.
This promising first feature might leave some feeling depressed and upset. It doesn’t set out to uplift and serve up big laughs. As long as it finds an audience that seeks out tragicomic dramas about interpersonal relationships, it will succeed. It is essential that viewers go into the film with the right expectations, rather than setting themselves up to expect the 2020s equivalent of Only When I Laugh (1981).