The installation and video artist Amalia Ulman is also an actress. With “El Planeta,” she’s become a director and screenwriter. Only 32, Ulman has led a notably varied life. Born in Argentina, she was raised in northwestern Spain, went to school in London, and now lives in New York.
Several of those elements figure in “El Planeta.” It’s set in Gijon, the Spanish port city where Ulman grew up. She stars as Leo, who also grew up in Gijon. Leo is back home visiting her mother, Maria. Maria is played by Ale Ulman, Amalia’s real-life mother. Leo went to school in London (see above) and has a job offer in New York. Maria remarks that she’s always wanted to go to Argentina. Leo mentions several times that she suffers from ongoing leg pain, the result of a bus accident — as does the filmmaker, for the same reason.
These parallels and overlaps make “El Planeta” sound very meta and up-its-own-spout: Charlie Kaufman reaches for the paella. In fact, what helps make “El Planeta” so appealing is how casual and (seemingly) straightforward everything is. Ulman likes simple shots and long scenes. Her only filmmaking affectation is using wipes for transitions.
Most scenes consist of just two people talking. The first one takes place in a cafe, with Leo being interviewed by an amiably egregious middle-aged man (Nacho Vigalondo) who’s placed a personals ad. He has peculiar intimacy interests, as one might say, and the resulting conversation verges on blind-date hell. But Ulman’s fondness for understatement and obliquity makes the scene funny in a very deadpan way. It also helps that the camera adores her immense eyes.
“El Planeta” has much humor, but the laughter tends to lurk around the edges. The movie also has a fair amount of pathos. Leo really is a bit at sea, and Maria really is, though unlike her daughter she remains cheerfully oblivious to that fact. This makes her both charming (she seems to subsist solely on cookies and pastry) and maddening (there’s the matter of her shoplifting). Put another way, Maria wouldn’t be out of place in an Almodóvar movie.
It would be wrong to call “El Planeta” a comedy, or drama, or even that wretched if useful term dramedy. It’s a slice of life, the life belonging to Gijon. The city is the third main character. The movie’s shot in a pearly black-and-white, which makes Gijon seem slightly unreal and also universal.
A tension between the particular and universal defines “El Planeta.” The title, which in Spanish means the planet, occurs in the movie just once, as the name of a restaurant where Maria cadges a meal for her and Leo. But the title also gets at how Ulman’s film is about a quite specific, and not necessarily attractive, place — a planet unto itself — but that in many ways is very much connected to the world as a whole.
There are those references to New York and London and Argentina. There are various glimpses on the TV news or snippets on the radio reporting on the Princess of Asturias Awards in the arts. Martin Scorsese, one of the prizewinners, gets referred to so often he deserves royalties. There’s Leo’s encounter with Amadeus (Zhou Chen), who’s also visiting Gijon. Amadeus is Chinese, lives in London, has an internship in Paris — with Balenciaga, no less — and is here to help out at his uncle’s store. He and Leo talk to each other in English, not Spanish or Chinese. Amadeus is globalism on the hoof, and “El Planeta,” in its uninflected, unexpected way, is globalism in Gijon — which is to say everywhere.
Written and directed by Amalia Ulman. Starring Ulman, Ale Ulman, Nacho Vigalondo, Zhou Chen. At the Brattle. 81 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13, casual profanity, a sexual situation). In Spanish and English, with subtitles.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.