Having a Job Sucks: Talking Sex, Labor, and Pre-Code Cinema with Amalia Ulman




IN ONE OF the final shots of El Planeta, writer-director Amalia Ulman’s stunning 2021 black-and-white film debut (in which she also stars), mother Maria and daughter Leonor watch a scene from Jean Renoir’s 1939 farce The Rules of the Game. The screen? A stickered MacBook Air. The venue? A tiny kitchen table strewn with apples and half-eaten oranges.

It is appropriate that a film so invested in questions of class dynamics would allude to this raucous cinematic send-up of the French elite and their equally lusty domestic staff. That the scene itself is never onscreen, but simply overheard, speaks to the subtlety with which, throughout El Planeta, reflexive gestures surface and disappear. A postcard hanging in the background of Maria and Leonor’s humble flat reads “At Home, No One Can Hear You Scream.” The geometric wipes from scene to scene pay visual tribute to the French New Wave.

Ulman’s Amadeus T-shirt the day of our interview more overtly followed this motif — Amadeus being the name of Leonor’s would-be love interest, played by fellow artist Zhou Chen. That the love story is peripheral to the plot of El Planeta is of a piece with its larger thematic, and wryly feminist, goals. Dubbed by turns a “dry Spanish comedy” and an “often laugh-out-loud funny piece of absurdism,” the film is, in many ways, one of the most realistic explorations of economic precarity and systemic sexism to appear onscreen in years.

Leonor (Ulman) — or “Leo,” as she is often called — is a creative twentysomething marooned in Gijón, Spain, which is also, fittingly, the director’s hometown. She aches to return to London, where she previously pursued her dreams in fashion styling. Leo and her eccentric, spell-casting mother (played by Ulman’s mother, Ale) face mounting debts and looming rent in a city as utterly emptied of employment opportunities as its shores and streets are of anyone under 75.

“Whatever turns you on, turns me on,” Leo casually assures a prospective john interested in lunchtime quickies. As El Planeta’s protagonist, as in our interview, Ulman can sometimes come across as a touch insouciant. But, in time, her ardor and vulnerability become abundantly clear — as does her status as an artistic polymath set to shake up the sober category of arthouse cinema.

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EILEEN G’SELL: From the very beginning, what struck me about El Planeta was its distinctive visual and editing style. It reminded me a lot of 1960s French New Wave films like Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 9 to 5 or Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless — following a roving female protagonist across a city over a short span of time. Yet, you channel this kinetic energy in a very contemporary way. What filmmakers of the past were influential to you in writing and directing this film?

AMALIA ULMAN: Well, it’s a combination of a lot of things. For this film, my interest in French New Wave was mostly drawn from my interest in templates. I was taking those cinematic references as an example of European cinema. In the same way, I applied those editing transitions, which are features of [the video editing software] Premiere Pro, that I often use in my practice as an artist, as I do ready-mades, altering things that are already there. I also included a lot of other references to American independent filmmakers from the early ’90s, like Jim Jarmusch, especially the sense of humor of his earlier films.

But the most direct reference — we even took some lines from certain movies — was pre-Code 1930s cinema, mostly because of the topic: hustlers going through a rough time, but always very glamorous and funny. I think that is missing from contemporary cinema, which always talks about class with a lot of guilt. The comedy is missing. I was also thinking of movies like Paper Moon (1973), which also reference the pre-Code era.

I saw Mervyn LeRoy’s Gold Diggers of 1933 in there. Pre-Code Warner Brothers movies had so much funny sexualized banter.

I was interested in using these references because most people wouldn’t get them because they’re so far away. For me, the close-ups in El Planeta were a reference to that sort of cinema. But because it’s so contemporary, it’s hard to see the connections — the clothes are different, the sounds are different. I didn’t want it to make the film retro; I just wanted to take the essence.

So many contemporary films, especially out of Hollywood, basically erase economic class, as though class in America just doesn’t exist. This is especially pernicious when representing fictional characters who live in these amazing apartments while writing or acting for a living, and it’s completely unbelievable. El Planeta incorporates class in a way that feels all encompassing, yet not heavy handed. It’s not a morality tale, which I found really refreshing.

As a creative person who is surrounded by other artists, I think it’s important to show that anyone could and should have aspirations to be an artist, whatever your background is. I’ve met many talented people who get burnt out because they’re so tired of fighting, but that doesn’t mean they’re less talented than other people at what they do. Most films about class, especially in Spain, depict people who are struggling and have zero interest in doing anything else but getting their little job and being good people. But, well, most people do not want to have a job, actually. Having a job sucks. [Laughs.] I think it’s totally fair to say that, and that it’s totally fine for someone to have artistic explorations or be broke and have mental illnesses. Life is messy. Things are complicated, and not as black and white as a lot of films try to make it seem.

This film opens with one of the most marvelous scenes in terms of destigmatizing sex work, which really sets the tone for the film. It’s funny and sad, and so awkward, and initially, it seems like it could be any other date. Was one of your goals in this film to destigmatize what is actually a very common way for people to make money — especially creative people living through our economically precarious time?

I didn’t grow up with a conservative household or anything, and I have nothing to hide. I’ve done some sex work, not a lot — mostly because I got into an accident [laughs], which left me unable to do any kind of other work. But I was not the only one. Everyone around me who was not from a rich family was doing sex work. But it’s such a weird taboo that no one wants to admit. But it’s been like this for many years. I’ve heard so many stories, since the ’70s, of artists that were doing sex work to be able to be artists — because that’s what they wanted to do. [It was] not because they were superficial or not humble enough to have a little job, but because sex work was the only thing that allowed you to have the time to focus on your practice.

Because I’m autistic, to work at a store was really tough for me because of the music and light. I would go into the store every day and get physically nauseous because of the sensory overload. It was much easier for me to do one hour of sex work a month, and then live like a monk, with my own routine and everything. There are a lot of elements at play with these things. Of course, sex work is work. I’m also not going to say, “Oh, this is marvelous.” It can be very dangerous — as dangerous as any other shitty job that people have. I think it is important to talk about it — how a lot of people that you would never expect to have to do it still have to do it. Because that’s the only way to pay for rent that month. I was especially keen on having that conversation. A lot of girls have to do this.

Sex work was not made to seem horrendous — or glamorous. I liked the banality.

I think a lot of girls are very good at it, and professionally, sex workers, they’re amazing. And that’s their life. There’s a lot of people that do it like once or twice just to pay their rent because they’re in a weird limbo at that time. That’s very common. There are also a lot of people that do not go ahead with it, but they’ve heard from friends that they are doing it, and they at least meet up with one guy once to test the waters.

The date that Leo goes on with Amadeus is visually similar to the opening prospective sex work scene. She’s on the same side of the table as earlier, and they’re staged a bit similarly. When Amadeus later reveals to Leo that he already has a family, the film suggests that this was more morally repellent than when the john shared the same thing — because the former relationship wasn’t transactional, or at least, wasn’t supposed to be.

I actually think that, in a way, Leo and Amadeus’s relationship was also transactional. She wanted a boyfriend in London, so she had these high hopes — like, “This is gonna be awesome. I’m going to be able to escape from here!” She was not on a 100 percent romantic date. So, I think both of them were using one another. Of course, they liked each other, but she had these high hopes to get out of Spain, and he was lonely and bored and knew that nothing will come out of it. Leo’s disappointment comes from not knowing the stakes ahead of time.

Exactly — not knowing ahead that the transaction is asymmetrical in a way. For all the overt aesthetics of the film, the mother-daughter relationship between Maria and Leo feels so real. Even more so than Leo, Maria is preoccupied with beauty and remaining sexually appealing. Her appearance brings her great joy, but it is also a burden she has to maintain. Were you trying to depict this in terms of how two different generations of women navigate the boon and burden of being beautiful?

Yes, that was very important. I’ve seen my mom suffer because of beauty. She’s from a poor background, but she’s very striking. She is half-indigenous and half-blonde German, so you can imagine how as a kid, growing up, she was this beautiful thing. And being from a poor background, that was the one thing she had. She didn’t want that for me. She was like, “You’re in Europe, you’re a different generation, you’re going to read and have studies and support yourself, and you’re not going to be reliant on men like this.”

Like Maria, my mother is very vain. She likes looking pretty. But it’s definitely a burden, too, and it gets her in a lot of trouble without her wanting it to be trouble, because men are extremely attracted to her all the time. I grew up going out with her and people were shocked, like, “Your mom is so beautiful.” It’s hard for her to show other aspects of herself because people are so obsessed with what she looks like, especially men, or women get angry at her for being so naturally pretty without trying.

I wanted to reflect that in the film — a different generational experience. From Maria’s witchcraft — which is very ’80s or ’90s Cosmo magazine — to her comments on specific diets. I grew up with my mom drinking weird smoothies and not eating real food. Nowadays, we’d say, “Oh, that is so toxic!” The trend right now is to eat healthier. All of these things are very generational, and I wanted to show that.

At one point, Leo is wearing a top she designed with the see-through window that reveals her breast, and when her mother asks, “What’s with this shirt?” she replies, “I don’t know. Feminism?” Then Maria says, “It would be feminist if I wore it with the tits you left me with!” I love that moment — one of the many moments where Maria is not just wacky and eccentric, but intelligent and funny. “Feminism” is mentioned twice in the film: once, when Amadeus comments on Leo’s preference for wearing flats, as though that is a feminist statement, and once in this scene with your mother. Were you thinking about this film as navigating the fraughtness of the term feminism? To me, El Planeta was a very feminist film without having the trappings of a lot of conventional feminist films.

Perhaps that’s because this was not intentionally a feminist film. When people call it a feminist film, sometimes I think, “I’m not sure if I would call it that.” It’s just a film made by a woman. As more women are making films, you’ll start seeing more and more films like that. And more mother-daughter films — because that’s a big, big part of being a woman: your relationship with your mother. A lot of the film might come off as feminist, because it’s just being honest about the reality of being a woman — the shit you have to go through.

My intention was only to be honest in every way — to examine the flaws within women too, the privileges of being female, or abusing your femininity for certain things when it’s convenient. I always make fun of my friends if they complain about some guy hitting on them, and say, “Well, you wouldn’t complain if you liked him. You would be really, really happy — even if he did the exactly the same thing. You wouldn’t say, ‘Oh gross! How dare you!’” [Laughs.]

The film plays with these expectations and ideas of feminism with humor. When I went to college, feminism was very important because I grew up in a very, very macho household. So, it was very eye opening to be like, “Oh my God — all of this makes so much sense. I can’t believe I went through all of this, or that my mom went through all of this.” Argentina and South America can be extremely misogynistic. There’re femicides all the time. I’m not coming from a middle-class, liberal household where feminism is taken for granted. I’m coming from a world where abortion was illegal — in Argentina it was until now — or where women are getting beaten up and killed all the time. My mom was pretty much a trophy wife — not allowed to say anything, just told to look pretty. I got abused by my dad every single time I had an opinion growing up. In response to the idea of me studying or doing something with my life, if it was the wrong time, my father would just get mad and say, “Who do you think you are? You think you’re smart? Do you think you’re smarter than me?”

Coming from that world, feminism was very important. But then, obviously, in recent years in America, feminism got extremely whitewashed. I was like, “That’s not how I think, and it’s not intersectional enough. We’re ignoring all these other big issues and focusing on relatively menial things.” So, I wanted for my film to not fall into that trap, either, and to approach feminism with more humor and lightness. If you’re a young girl with your boobs out, saying, “Free the nipple!,” you look hot. [Laughs.] You’re not really provoking anyone in a big way.

Economic precarity seems to be the central theme in the movie — how close any self-described middle-class household is to financial ruin. However lighthearted the film can be, El Planeta emphasizes this current reality in a devastating way. I know that it’s set in Spain, which has suffered a serious recession, and I know that you grew up in Gijón. How are you thinking economic precarity in the story of Leo and Maria? To me, this is a movie about class first, gender second, but, of course, they intersect.

I think it’s important to show how, especially like a place like Gijón, there’s no money around. Even if you wanted to do some hustling to make some money, you’d make like 20 Euros. How much do you have to do to even get a flight out of town? Even if you want to — really, really want to — getting out of town is tough. This especially happens when you’re a woman. There’s a generational shift between women who got married really young and were not allowed to work.

My mother was not allowed to work, by the way, while she was married. My father didn’t allow that. That’s very common. And then something happens — either the guy dies or marries someone else — and you’re left with a huge gap in your résumé. You’re suddenly 50 years old, and like, “Oh, well, where’s the help? Where are all these promised things?” You spent half of your life doing this other thing that has no economic value at all, secluded from any sort of contact with the world, then suddenly have to, out of nowhere, say, “Hey, guys, I need a job. I need this. I need that.” It was important to show, especially if you’re a woman, how easy it is to get trapped.

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Eileen G’Sell is a poet and culture critic focusing on film, art, and visual culture. Her latest book is Life After Rugby (2018).

 

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