Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB
Spain/USA, 2021. Holga’s Meow, Memory, Operator Media. Screenplay by Amalia Ulman. Cinematography by Carlos Rigo. Produced by Kathleen Heffernan, Kweku Mandela, Amalia Ulman. Music by Chicken. Costume Design by Fiona Duncan. Film Editing by Katie Mcquerry, Anthony Valdez.
The strained financial circumstances of the main characters of this dark comedy are introduced in an extremely comical manner: a young woman named Leo (Amalia Ulman, also the film’s writer and director) sits at a café waiting for a man that we presume is an internet date of a romantic nature. He’s actually answering her offer to take money to fulfill his bawdy fantasy, which she says she’ll consider before leaving before sealing the deal.
Leo lives in the idyllic Spanish seaside town of Gijon, the place abuzz with preparation for the annual Princess of the Asturias Awards which will include the attendance of such luminaries as director Martin Scorsese and the Spanish royal family. Leo and her mother María (Ulman’s real life mother Ale Ulman) are struggling under the country’s economic crisis, anxious to maintain the comforts of their regular middle class life but, with the money running out and the utilities being turned off in their home, resorting to methods desperate and dishonest to get by, including charging bills to notable citizens with whom they have fictitious relationships, and shoplifting. Leo is a stylist who has moved home from London following the death of her father and is finding little to inspire or occupy her now that she’s back. A gig is sent her way to go to New York and work on a magazine cover shoot with Christina Aguilera, but the employers are only offering a free night at a hotel, no airfare because the “exposure” is more valuable in payment.
A brief romance with a Chinese tourist temporarily running his uncle’s souvenir shop might provide a change but it turns out to be as hollow as everything else in her life (and is the film’s one false note, movies that lecture us about disaffected people surviving modern-day economic realities always have a Chinese character as a way to comment on soulless globalization). As harmony degrades at home and the women face the certainty of their being evicted at the end of the month, María keeps up her mischievous ways while working towards a highly unusual goal, thinking that if she gets arrested and thrown in jail she’ll save money on rent and meals.
Shot in stark black and white until the full-colour coda that puts the argument on blast in the final credit sequence, this short and smart diatribe doesn’t rewrite the world of films as snarky social commentary, but it never belabours its points and tells its tale through a series of engaging characters.