Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Mar 10, 2011 4:27 pm 
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A woman poised on the edge -- very poised

Pia Marais grew up in South Africa, Sweden, and Spain, studied in London and Germany. At Ellen’s Age (Im Alter Von Ellen) is an international film, a film aware of but at ease with dislocation. Jeanne Balibar is a famous French movie actress, who here acts in meticulous German. Arnaud Despleshin, Jacques Rivette, Olivier Assayas, Benoît Jacquot, and Christophe Honoré love Jeanne Baibar, and you can see why. Here, as Ellen, she is a woman at the end of her tether who never loses her implacable cool. That's Jeanne Balibar: a poise and neutrality, that is at the same time amused, present, intelligent. Here, as Ellen, she is an international person by occupation: an airline stewardess, who has a panic attack and walks off the job just as the plane is ready for takeoff because she sees a leopard on the runway.

That's one reason. But she is slightly unhinged already. Her longtime companion, Florian (Georg Friedrich) has left her. Or his relationship with another woman has made theirs too unstable. He is about to be a father -- of the other woman's baby. He seems to want a kind of ménage à trois. Without the placebo of the formerly stable "home" to return to, the instability of Ellen's job becomes simply aimlessness. She learns that her walk-off will force her superiors to fire her, and she wanders off. She walks in on a gay colleague at an airport hotel and spends the night, sleeps over and is taken up by a woman who stages a drunken sex party to amuse and distract her -- or perhaps just make us think of the drawings of Otto Dix.

Ellen's aimlessness is a kind of distracted chutzpah. She won't put out her cigarette in a taxi, and the driver evicts her -- and drives off with her suitcase in the trunk. She hitches a ride in a van to catch the taxi, but instead, still wearing her flight attendant uniform, the only clothes she has, becomes the somewhat out of place guest of a commune of young long-haired animal activists. They are a hippie and punk German version of the anti-poachers she saw after the leopard appeared on the African runway and delayed takeoff. A little African boy lighting a handmade cigarette said they were "professionals." "We are the only ones who shoot the poachers," he had said.

Marais' film, following Horst Markgraf 's screenplay, has an admirable dreamlike quality that creates a sense of captured reality. The young German activists are attractive. They argue about all their actions. They are vegans. They are a commune, so they find a temporary place for Ellen. Her maturity and sense of order might help them. But in one of their demos she won't strip naked as they do so she doesn't get full voting rights, and later she is not allowed to live in the guest room.

Florian, who has been desperately searching for her, finds Ellen in a furniture store, finally not in her stewardess uniform any more. "I live here," she says. He wants to take her back, but she won't go. She has him come and see her with Karl (Stefan Stern), a young man in the commune who finds her beautiful. She has Karl pretend he's her boyfriend to show Florian she no longer needs him. Later Karl proposes marriage to her, because it may exempt him from military service. She marries him but will not have sex with him -- till she does. There is a good scene in a bathtub. Karl makes one realize that Ellen has bravado. He has it too, but he admits he's not as confident as he seems. "I know," she says.

The German activists stop a truck and release a load of chickens, and later let loose a lot of white lab mice. Memorable moments: Ellen with a monkey on her shoulder; in the dark with a horde of white mice scurrying away. The message (to us) is clear: this is foolishness. The sexy young activists are not helping the animals. Suddenly, we're in Africa, and Ellen has found the anti-poacher group again and the African boy who rolls cigarettes. In the final scene, when she has been given a bed and made it up, the boy says, "I think you need a new set of clothes. . . or maybe you just need to come with me for a walk." And they go off into the African haze, her dawn. We don't know if this will be her life or is just a stepping stone, like Karl.

In this second film by Marais (her first won four prizes for a promising beginning) Ellen has come to a mid-life crisis that's a crisis of age but also a kind of rebirth into an age of reason. Viewers who find the script aimless or think the film establishes too little distance from its protagonist can enjoy Balibar's sublimely improvisational, self-possessed performance as a woman stripped of everything and therefore free. They may also enjoy the convincing and detailed scenes of the German animal rights commune, and the flavorful moments in Marais' home continent of Africa. The transfer from 16mm to 35 is handsome and the sound is atmospheric.

This picture debuted at Locarno just before a JetBlue employee walked off in very similar circumstances, life imitating art. At Ellen's Age was also shown at Toronto. Seen and reviewed as part of the New Directors/New Films series presented by MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center from March 23 through April 3, 2011 in NYC.

2010. Germany. 95 minutes. In German.

Series showing times:
2011-03-24 | 6:00 PM | MoMA
2011-03-26 | 3:00 PM | FSLC

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