This year's New Directors/New Films (March 23-April 3 at MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center) features some heavy hitters, relatively speaking. Films like Li Honqi's Winter Vacation, Denis Cote's Curling and Athina Rachel Tsangari's ATTENBERG have already garnered prizes (and a fair share of media attention) at other festivals around the world—to say nothing of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination for Denis Villeneuve's Incendies.
These are all worthy titles (save perhaps for Incendies, which strikes me as too tidy by half) but some of the best filmmaking at ND/NF resides a little further down the bill. Neither Pia Marais's At Ellen's Age or Nicolas Pereda's Summer of Goliath are hitting New York with a lot of hype, which is appropriate in that both films are predicated on a kind of stealthiness: where Pereda's documentary-fiction hybrid drifts by in a warm, languid haze, Marais's fraught, globe-trotting drama seems to be creeping up on its own protagonist.
That would be Ellen (Jeanne Balibar), a German flight attendant who walks off the job on an African runway for reasons that are as unclear to her as they are to us—though they seem to have something to do with her catching a glimpse of a cheetah tearing down the tarmac in the moments before takeoff. It's the first of several scenes in Marais' sophomore feature built around images of animals, and the motif makes sense insofar as At Ellen's Age is very much a film about basic instinct: whatever it is that makes Ellen abandon her job—and the superficially routinized yet essentially unsettled life that goes with it—seems like a byproduct of anxiety and desire.
"We were looking for a very contemporary person and the idea of a flight attendant came up early," explains Marais. "[A flight attendant] is a person who constantly moves through time zones, the extreme opposite of a more traditional or settled profession, like a farmer, for example. I thought the character should be like a vehicle of the time we live in, when one is no longer bound to the place where he or she is born. Most of us will probably not live in the place of our birth, we are no longer dependent on the rhythm of the seasons, we don't know who are neighbors are. Things change with a velocity we don't know the consequences of."
Velocity is very much Marais' style: the early scenes of At Ellen's Age have a careening quality that's a little reminiscent of the vertiginous speed of Olivier Assayas's early films. Marais also shares Assayas' talent for filming the limnal, anodyne spaces of airports and airplanes, and there's a clear progression in the film's shift from interior to exterior spaces by the end. Everything happens quickly: before we really get to know Ellen, her marriage dissolves, she has her cheetah-based epiphany and she falls in with a crowd of young animal-rights activists, who function as a stabilizing force—a ragtag family unit—even as they stir something unruly in the older woman.
There's a provocative subtext here about what it means to try to reclaim one's youth—and by extension, the radical idealism that comes with it—but Ellen is hardly reducible to a "type." The credit for that goes not only to Marais but also to her leading lady, whose performance is a study in subtle physical and emotional modulations. "[She] is in control," says Marais of Balibar. "That was important, to keep the character from simply being a lost case or a victim. [The film] is very much about maintaining one's dignity when life becomes turbulent."
This same combination of fascination and empathy underpinned Marais fine 2007 debut The Unpolished, a portrait of adolescent despair with certain superficial narrative similarities to Christian Petzold's 2002 film The State I'm In—the film that heralded the formation of the so-called "Berlin School." Marais actually attended the dffb (Berlin Film and Television Academy), but hasn't yet been pigeonholed in the company of fellow grads like Angela Schanelac and Thomas Arslan. "I think in a very small way, I can fit myself into the general picture here," says Marais. "But I have never entirely understood what exactly this term ["Berlin School"] really means. I think that these filmmakers all so unique. I think perhaps they simply are auteur filmmakers, and that is what they have in common."