‘El Planeta’ Review: A Comedy of Austerity

“El Planeta” is a Spanish comedy of financial errors that opens with a negotiation. Leo, played by the film’s director, Amalia Ulman, is a fashion student who meets with a middle-aged man to discuss her sexual rather than sartorial services. Leo’s coffee date lays out his preferences and kinks, and she names her price. Her date laughs in response. In their city of Gijón, Spain, he explains, oral sex might go for a cool 20 euros, not the 500 euros she proposed. In “El Planeta,” not even sex work can fetch a living wage.

After her failed attempt to earn an honest wage, Leo returns to the apartment she shares with her mother (played by Amalia’s real mother, Ale Ulman). There is no food in the fridge, no bills have been paid, and neither mother nor daughter has work. Instead, they get by through grifting, donning fur coats to dine at restaurants where they’ve run up unpayable tabs. Leo is conflicted, but her mother is cheerfully committed to the scam regardless of the consequences. She reasons that at least in prison, the food is always free.

This is a dry comedy that elicits amused recognition rather than belly laughs, and Ulman, as a first-time feature director, makes canny decisions to set a wry tone. The movie was shot in black and white, and music is used sparingly. Even when Leo and her mother present an appearance of opulence, with bespoke gowns and designer T-shirts, they remain visually trapped in a world of austerity. Like its grifter characters, “El Planeta” signals luxury but it does not luxuriate, creating an experience that is more intellectually than sensually satisfying.

El Planeta
Not rated. In Spanish, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 19 minutes. In theaters.

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