Pia Marais on At Ellen’s Age

Features, Interviews, Film Festivals, FILM
The director of The Unpolished confronts the dilemmas of ageing and belonging in her unpredictable new film.

German filmmaker Pia Marais’s two feature films to date have made their mark at the New Zealand International Film Festival. Her debut, The Unpolished (2007), was a potent, slow-burning tale of deemed no-hopers trying to find stability in their lives, while her latest, At Ellen’s Age, is a restless and compelling vision of contemporary ennui, starring Jeanne Balibar as a flight attendant who finds herself adrift after a relationship break-up.

Marais attended art school in the mid-nineties, and though her initial interest was in sculpture, architecture, and photography, she was drawn to film because “there is a narrative to it, and the other thing, is [that] you work with people, which I think is very important.” An unlikely hit, The Unpolished told the story of Stevie, a teenager trying to escape the clutches of her up-to-nothing parents. Marais admits to being surprised by the film’s success. “It didn’t do very well at the box office [laughs]. But I was surprised after making short films at film school [that] I didn’t have any festival success. Having said that, none of them were that good. I didn’t feel inherently part of the German culture, [nor] that there was a lot of experimental film. And The Unpolished is different, because it is slightly autobiographical. It’s fictional in what happened, but themes from my childhood overlap a lot.”

Marais is quick to reiterate that her film is only vaguely autobiographical—a charge often laid on films by first-time directors that are set during childhood or adolescence. “The film would have been set in the ’70s, and it would have been a comedy,” she jokes, before adding, “setting The Unpolished in the now, even though it has this character of being in another time from now, definitely affected the temperature of the film. I think it’s funny, but in a very [cuts her throat] way.”

The film’s success was aided by its release on the influential DVD imprint, Second Run. The label professed their interest in The Unpolished via the great Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa, who had worked with Jeanne Balibar (on 2009’s Ne change rien). “I’ve got to say it’s one of the nicest things to have ever happened to the film. They [Second Run] are so loving and so caring, and I think what they do is really for the love of it. I feel very honoured to be in their collection. It’s why everyone should check out their DVDs.”

At Ellen’s Age, on the surface, is a very different film to The Unpolished: one is centred on a young protagonist in search of stability; the other an initially comfortable character approaching middle age. “I spent so much [time] as a 14-year-old character, a different subject interested me,” Marais explains. “It felt so claustrophobic being reminded of a child all of the time. I think the themes are absolutely related and the characters totally different.”

She remarks, somewhat surprisingly given the latter film’s narrative, that “At Ellen’s Age is far more personal than The Unpolished. It’s my own story. There’s always something personal in my films. The next film I will make is a genre film, and maybe that’s very personal, but it’s not in the story, it’s in the theme that it develops around. It’s not autobiographical at all, it’s personal.”

Marais’s films feature characters that are lost, both in terms of their relationships, and in terms of their ‘homes’. However, whereas The Unpolished was about stasis, At Ellen’s Age is about rootlessness. “When I started to work on it [At Ellen’s Age], I had this feeling of ‘where do you belong?’ ‘Where are you going to grow old?’ I can’t figure it out for myself, so I thought I’d have this character figure it out. Both films have this theme. Actually, it’s very common. Nowadays, people don’t necessarily grow old where they’re born, or live where they’re born.”

Key to the film was convincing French actress Balibar to play the lead, whom Marais had first noticed in Oliver Assayas’s films. “I couldn’t find the right actress in Germany for the part. Most of the actresses saw the character as a victim—I think that it is a borderline case. I’ve never felt it that way, and I know Jeanne didn’t either. I just really liked her. She’s really intelligent, and she brought this intelligence to this character.”

Ellen is a flight attendant, an occupation that mirrors the displacement of the character. “We started researching flight attendants. They’re a very contemporary character, even if they’ve been flying for over half a century.” She ponders: “It is peculiar: they fly through different time zones and that becomes their normality. When you consider that people used to view time through their summer harvest…” On one particular German airline, she points out that, “you don’t work with the same people. Every time you get on a plane, you work with a different crew.”

Further down the line, Ellen’s crisis of faith leads to an ambivalent relationship with a German counterculture group, and for Marais, this particular episode involved a lot of research. “We wanted initially to cast the film with real anti-fascist young people. For the first few months of the casting, it was in Berlin. [We found] this large movement—they’re vegan, eat vegan food seven days a week—in one of these projects, [they] might get paid two euros, and if they earn anything, they’ll put it towards a cause. It’s a very strong community. We’d go out and try to find people there to invite for casting. [But] they didn’t want to come. There would be these conversations that would go on for an hour. They weren’t interested. It wasn’t political enough. At some point, my intern said to me, ‘We can’t get these people. They’re too close. Can we try now and see with actors?’ It was a very important period [though], because we saw the real people. When we saw the actors, we’d look for a specific kind of energy.”

The film’s depiction of its chosen counter-culture group has led to criticism from some activists. “It’s not as if they’re one movement. [Our activists], which were based on this group in Berlin, anger a lot of other people. In Melbourne, there was this guy in the audience and he didn’t find them authentic, and he was an ‘authentic’. He didn’t feel ‘authentic’ in their [the Berlin group’s] place. The way he dressed, they were quite strict about that. It’s not an open society, it’s very closed and intolerant. I find it in one way very funny—anyone who is idealistic and argumentative, [that] there is a moral thing about it.”

At Ellen’s Age also features cheetahs, and Marais confesses it wasn’t an easy part of the shoot. “They weren’t used to film sets. The cheetah, it was a very beautiful cheetah, but it didn’t do what we wanted to do. We were shooting at an airport, and every second costs, [but] the cheetah was [shrugs her shoulder]. At some point it got loose, and it was going all over the set. It had this wild energy, but literally, [what you see] in the film was all of the material we could use.”

Marais’s next film is going to be a thriller set in South Africa. (She was born in South Africa.) It continues her globetrotting and restless approach to filmmaking, and on the back of her first two features, promises to provide further fascinating insight into human relationships and behaviour in an increasingly globalised and displaced world.

The New Zealand International Film Festival 2011 continues throughout the country until November. For regional dates, programme details, and screening times, visit nzff.co.nz.