The sometimes hard-to-distinguish variances between being caged and allowed to roam free inform the trials and tribulations of the middle-aged woman at the center of Pia Marais’s second feature, At Ellen’s Age. The eponymous heroine, a flight attendant played by the magnetic Jeanne Balibar, arrives home from a flight to the news that her partner (Georg Friedrich) has knocked up another woman. The news of this long-gestating infidelity, along with some undisclosed medical results she receives that are assumedly not pleasant, leads to Ellen staging a nutty on a flight out of Africa, leading in turn to her immediate dismissal from her job.
The company line on a story like this would have poor, damaged Ellen going all Eat Pray Love on the situation, seeking comfort in budding romance and exploring her own, unique femininity. Marais—who collaborated on the script with Horst Markgraf, as she did with The Unpolished, the director’s first feature—does eventually incorporate a new fellow (of sorts), but the focus here is on the uneasy struggle to be an independent figure rather than seeking the comfort of being part of a community or even a couple.
Karl (Stefan Stern), the aforementioned fellow, poses an opportunity for both companionship and community, as he’s part of a vegan-only animal-rights co-op that initially offers Ellen a home after her breakdown. In exchange for his help with the more obnoxiously righteous members of the co-op, Ellen agrees to marry Karl, thus saving him from getting drafted by the military. Romance is neither Ellen nor Karl’s prerogative and, in turn, Marais smartly avoids romanticizing Ellen, Karl, the activists, and the lifestyle of a radical. Karl’s group’s motives and goals may be well-intentioned, but sleeping on a tiny cot with legions of animals roaming, eating, and defecating freely isn’t necessarily any approximation of the dream life.
Adjusting to a similar, roaming freedom becomes Ellen’s burden and Marais is dedicated to showing her process of severing ties with her old life as a slow burn. The results are a mixed bag: For every startling, nuanced moment of character-driven intimacy, there’s a patch of dramatic malaise with little more than the pedestrian use of Steadicam to color it with. More times than not, however, the director’s light tough sufficiently maintains the bizarre world Ellen finds herself in and the director is deft at summoning the promise and warmth of domesticity. A furniture store with wall-to-wall modern fixtures and hip designs becomes the setting of a crucial moment in which Ellen meets up with her ex and at that moment, surrounded by happy couples of all ages, we can see the easy temptations of suburban life battling it out with the hard-won insights of a life dedicated to a singular passion in Balibar’s exhausted yet piercing gaze.