This famously took the form of Instagram performance art, where Ulman posted for five months in 2014 as a woman rapidly transforming herself into a Hot Babe with surgeries and personality shifts. Ulman again creates someone she isn’t, but could be, with El Planeta, a thinly-autobiographical dark comedy about a daughter, Leo (Ulman), and mother, María (Ale Ulman, Amalia’s real mother), in coastal Gijón, Spain (Ulman’s hometown) passing the days before their eviction, buying cocktail dresses on credit. (The pair really were evicted in real life).
The swindled dresses are excellent. Ulman’s Leo is a stylist and was a student at Central Saint Martins before unexpected poverty. Her mother has two outfits remaining: pyjamas and a floor-dusting fur coat. Essentially, El Planeta is a fashion film about things the fashion world would rather not think about: Europe’s economic crisis, class relations, and no-show socks.
“Costumes are as important as the cinematography or the soundtrack for me,” Ulman tells me over the phone.
The fur coat is a tool to understand the character in the fish-eye context of Spain’s recession that began in 2008 and never really got better. “For María, the mother, we were trying to replicate the classic Spanish conservative person. They always dress that way. Even if they don’t have any money, if they align themselves with right-wing politics they dress up posh. Burberry, Lacoste, all these clothes are signifiers.” But that’s not how Ulman’s mum really dresses, she clarifies. Her parents are hipsters.
Leo, on the other hand, is a savvy Depop girl. Her clothes communicate a pure love for fashion, an understanding of designers as artists, that would make her a successful stylist if given the chance. Ulman had help from her well-dressed friend Fiona Duncan to study what cool New York girls were wearing around 2018, down to the detail. Leo scrolls on her phone in a Martina Cox peekaboo boob tube and nibbles on pastries in a statement puffer by Gauntlett Cheng. The heat’s been shut off in their apartment and, in Gijón, it’s always raining.
Grey Gardens comes to mind for so many reasons, particularly the Maysles’ respect for their eccentric subjects. “I didn’t want to make a caricature [out of Leo]. I think it’s true to the experience of working in fashion, this strange distance between being broke and celebrity culture.” Two distressing scenes are María on the phone talking about becoming homeless, and Leo on Zoom with a magazine editor who has a styling gig for a Christina Aguilera cover shoot – no, they won’t pay for airfare but she can definitely stay a night at a hotel, on them. “The bigger the name, the less money’s involved, you know.”
Ulman was also thinking about how a wardrobe would look in black and white, in nouvelle vague-style city scenes. (She doesn’t think Gijón suits colour film, and she had years of practise with a Lomography camera as a teen). Nothing could be more striking than the slim zebra print Moschino suit Leo wears to the knick-knacks shop where her mother commits petty theft and she has a chance encounter with the man working the till: he is wearing zebra, too. “Before shooting, my friend Amadeus sent me a funny picture and he happened to be wearing a zebra shirt, and I was like, ‘Wait a second, please bring that over.’”
Amadeus, a Shanghai-based artist whose Chinese name is Chen Zhou, plays the role – a meet-cute turned good date turned disappointment – though the character is based on a different friend Ulman met at fashion school. While not every element of El Planeta is autobiographical, everything at least happened to someone she knows. “These people are real. I’m not projecting wishful thinking. I decided it was going to be a really hot guy who’s doing really well who’s going to fuck me over. Which is very different from how Chinese immigrants are portrayed in Spanish films, where they still have a bad accent or they’re kind of stupid… We didn’t receive any [financial] support from Spain precisely because of this, because the cinema that gets made and funded in Spain doesn’t represent Spain at all.”
Ulman grew up in northwestern Spain with “very Argentinian” parents. She spent much of her twenties in Los Angeles, recovering from a bus accident that crippled her legs in a city where no one walks. Since January, she’s lived in New York City. But the principles of her hometown’s inhabitants are imprinted on her, just like Ulman’s early Instagram persona infiltrated how she behaved in real life. In a cheeky, loving montage, the camera watches Gijón’s elderly women walk through the square sipping espressos, staring into the distance. They aren’t stylish, but on film they seem a direct influence on the hourglass silhouettes and kitten heels Leo, or Ulman, wear now. The ladies are cut between shots of dusty mannequins in shop windows, set against an Andalusian-inspired score by club kid DJ Chicken.
El Planeta is ultimately about decay. Capitalism has lost its shine. Clothes get eaten by moths. What else to expect from a former Eurotrash mall rat who discovered art on the internet? “I was portraying the city the way it is, but also the way it is when you’re desperate and young,” Amalia says. It’s a desperation that looks best in Moschino.