Dir: Pia Marais. Germany. 2010. 95mins

At Ellen's Age

Rarely has a film identified to such a dangerous extent with the theme it treats. Pia Marais, whose 2007 debut, The Unpolished garnered quite a few awards for its portrait of adolescent confusion, switches here to an acute case of mid-life crisis, following an air stewardess seeking meaning to what she realizes was up to that point a wasted life. Since, if anything, she is conscious of what she is running away from rather than what she is looking for, the picture itself hesitates to take any standing, in a quest which ends with a still unanswered question. A fair if not terribly original representation of modern angst, it should get plenty of festival exposure and a promising career on German-speaking screens. At Ellen’s Age premiered in competition at the Locarno International Film Festival.

Marais, who seems to wing her way through the loose script almost like Ellen herself, seems to be as uncertain as her protagonist is of the right answers to the questions she poses.

Ellen (Jeanne Balibar), a flight attendant securely navigating her life for the last 10 years on auto-pilot, is going through the motions and routines of her profession all around the world and entertaining a semi-casual affair whenever she has the time to land home, until she is suddenly forced to face the emptiness of her existence. Her lover has had enough of part-time romance and expects a baby from another partner, a doctor’s call reminds her of her own mortality, and stricken by a panic attack, she finds herself without employment, stranded in a strange city, numb, disoriented and completely alone.

After ineffectual attempts to stick to her former colleagues which fail piteously and a drunken sex party which turns out worse, she accidentally stumbles into a group of young animal activists, joins them and even agrees to marry one of them to prevent him getting drafted into the army. But through it all she remains solitary and purposeless, a loner who is still searching for herself on the embattled roads of Africa when the camera leaves her in the film’s last shot.

Marais, who seems to wing her way through the loose script almost like Ellen herself, seems to be as uncertain as her protagonist is of the right answers to the questions she poses. There is a strong sense of dissatisfied irony in every aspect of Ellen’s indefinite journey, whether it is the harassed businessmen drinking themselves silly and clumsily undressing in their pathetic attempt to have a good time, her boyfriend, Florian (Georg Friedrich), who offers her the option of an eventual ménage a trois, the young activists who vote on everything they do and discuss every decision to death, or the black kid in Africa who smokes pot and announces the revolution. No wonder she cannot blend in, in any of these circumstances.

Balibar’s distinct foreign accent in the leading role adds a substantial degree of detachment to her natural capacity for aloofness, which has served her often in the past. Her effortless performance is essential in this case, for, with all due credit to a solid supporting cast she is the one to carry the film on her shoulders from beginning to end.

Production companies: Pandora Film Produktion Sales, The Match Factory

Producers: Claudia Steffen, Christoph Friedel

Screenplay: Horst Markgraf, Pia Marais

Cinematography: Helene Louvart

Production design: Petra Barchi

Editor: Mona Brauer

Music: Horst Markgraf, Yoyo Rohm

Main cast: Jeanne Balibar, Stefan Stern, Georg Friedrich, Julia Hummer, Alexander Scheer, Eva Lobau, Clare Mortimer, Ian Roberts