At Ellen's Age

A monkey begets the film's best scene.

Jeanne Balibar acquits herself suitably in Pia Marais’ new film At Ellen’s Age, but a solid central performance unfortunately isn’t enough to keep this intermittently intriguing, yet sluggishly paced and underdeveloped drama from becoming tiresome.

Air stewardess Ellen (Balibar) discovers at the start of the film that her casual lover has not only been fooling around with other women, but that he has in fact impregnanted one, an unseen woman named Anna. As he shows little regard for Ellen’s emotions and crudely tries to keep their arrangement going, Ellen has no choice but to leave. However, she struggles to mute her personal problems, which seep into her professional life, causing her to lose her job. When hitching for a ride, she is picked up by a group of animal-rights activists, who introduce her to a new life of sexual liberalism and grass-roots politics, in which she is effectively reborn.

The key area in which the film succeeds (despite its many failures otherwise) is in regard to Ellen’s characterisation; Marais roots her well in the initial scenes as an uptight, buttoned-down woman (aptly conveying the monotony of an oft-romanticised job at the same time), before turning this upside down and having her slowly tear these reservations down. The attempts she makes in this stead to assert herself post-marriage are indeed quite amusing; a party she attends in which there are bouts of questionable sexuality and “hooking up” bring her back to a perpetual stage of teenage, hormone-soaked desire, though it is an uneasy transformation as she is so uncomfortable in her own skin.

There are, however, some dreadful contrivances throughout; the new occupier of a hotel room Ellen oversleeps in all-of-a-sudden decides to take her out for a meal after no more than half a minute of dialogue. Not only incredibly lazy, it is just too easy and convenient a segue for the script to rattle on about the philosophy of life and love, and to reward it for its fast-track attempt at an intellectual, emotional discourse would not be right. Also, the use of an obvious visual allegory early on feels head-smackingly lazy; after Ellen has ended her relationship, we see a cheetah that has stumbled from its habitat into an urban space, insinuating with little reserve that she is as lost now out of her marriage as the cheetah is roaming around outside. It feels like the sort of a touch a student straight out of film school would put into a film.

Steam builds better once Ellen finally meets the hippie troupe; her awkward dancing at a party highlights the film’s best asset – the lead’s performance – for Balibar does a good job portraying how positively mortified Ellen is as a small monkey rests on her head. Somehow I don’t think that scene was too much of a stretch for her. When reaching oddly for political topicality, though, the film becomes fatally unstuck; Marais focuses keenly on the passionately argued statements of the group, but what point does it really serve to character or story function? Either it is pointless buffering, or more likely, a subversively didactic effort on the director’s part to snidely assert her own agenda.

If Ellen’s choosing to shack up with the activists is the action, then what is the reaction? We keep waiting for that revelatory moment that never happens, for Ellen to burn her bra and join the hippie commune unreservedly, stripping off as they do. Instead she quietly rebels, giving into year-long sexual impulses and shedding her opressive work uniform. This brief focus on character regrettably peters out somewhat after a boring, distended episode in which the hippies break into an animal testing building, which is bereft of any sense of incident or urgency.

Ellen’s final station in which we see her is admittedly surprising, but the vague style causes it to end with little affect or emotion. We’re simply left with more nagging questions, and for a character in such a unique position, we are given very little insight into what she is actually feeling. Dragging on and on past its logical closure point, the lingering final shot is infuriatingly immature.

The acting is rock-solid, but the bland direction and incohesive script do Jeanne Balibar a grand disservice, never allowing us to get under Ellen’s skin, and thus that all-important audience empathy is tepid at best.


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