Im Alter von Ellen
Review by Anna Bak-Kvapil
Posted on 28 March 2011
Source 35mm print
Boasting a robust slate of films already approved by Sundance, Cannes, Rotterdam and Toronto, the 2011 New Directors/New Films festival sets expectations high for its 40th anniversary. Some choices, like director Dennis Villeneuve’s tricky, politically opaque Incendies (Canada’s entry for the 2011 Academy Awards) and Daniel and Diego Vega’s Peruvian character study Octubre (Cannes 2010 Un Certain Regard winner), live up to their reputations. Others, like Anne Sewitsky’s Norwegian comedy of re-marriage, Happy Happy (Sundance 2011 Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema winner) and opening night film Margin Call, a hokey drama about the 2008 market crash, starring heavyweights Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons, fall disappointingly flat. There isn’t much in the way of levity or eye candy to be found, favored themes being the melancholy dreariness of daily life and the horrors of political unrest. (With so many selections sharing the same brownish gray color palette, I began to wonder if the projector simply hadn’t been cleaned in a while.) The most high profile films have imminent theatrical release dates, but some of the best entries in the festival are among the least heralded, including the Japanese comedy Hospitalité, and the French coming of age tale Belle Epine. Accordingly, the focus of reviews here will be on the good - and the not so good - in New Directors/New Films selections currently lacking U.S. distribution.
At Ellen’s Age posits the scary notion that there may be no return to normality after a midlife mental break down. A long time flight attendant, Ellen, played by iconic French actress Jeanne Balibar, is shown going about the routine of her job. As she gives a pre-take off safety demonstration, the soundtrack goes silent, emphasizing her incantatory but meaningless crossing and re-crossing of hands as she wrangles seat belts and life preservers. German director Pia Marais is skilled at creating scenes where real life turns eerie and metaphorical without tipping over into fantasy.
After discovering that her boyfriend is leaving her for another woman, and the results of a doctor’s test are bad, Ellen sees a leopard loose on the runway. At first it appears to be a shamanistic vision, but the big cat is really there, pursued by men with tranquilizer guns. Fixating on the image of the leopard, Ellen finally flees a plane as it idles on the runway. Unlike JetBlue’s Steven Slater, her act isn’t meant to be defiant, and in a debasing scene, she begs without success to keep her job.
Ellen looks like she’s spent days on transcontinental red eye flights, with the hunched, deflated appearance high altitude creates. But the farther she gets from her job, freed from constrained responsibility and recycled air, the more attractive she grows. The vérité camerawork stays close behind her as she walks, and dances around her face, attempting to capture the minor nuances of her often blank expressions.
Mercifully, At Ellen’s Age doesn’t spout life-affirming dogma or subject its alienated heroine to yoga and Eastern philosophy; unlike the divorcee of Eat Pray Love, Ellen’s salvation doesn’t lie in opening her chakras. She has slightly more in common with another fired flight attendant, Jackie Brown, similarly falling into lawlessness on the outer edges of society. While hitchhiking, she’s picked up by a group of young animal rights activists. She sticks with them and stands around bemused during their acts of anarchist vandalism, heaps of “saved” radioactive-looking white lab mice scampering around her feet. One of the anarchists convinces her to marry him so he can elude a military draft. While courteous about what the anarchists are trying achieve, Ellen never shows her hand, displaying a shell-shocked lack of interest in the activities and emotions of those around her.
With some striking images and an intriguing premise, At Ellen’s Age comes close to excellence. But Ellen’s lack of personality becomes aggravating; there is only so much a film can do with a main character who reveals nothing about herself, and eventually her emptiness leaves the film with a hollow center. As Ellen continues to follow her mercurial impulses, we’re left feeling as lost as she does.