December 13, 2013
A small boy looms large in Swiss drama Sister
A riveting story about a teenager who steals from the wealthy to support his sibling
Twelve-year-old Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) has obtained a season pass to a classy winter ski resort in the Alps. Everyday, he rides up the lifts to the top of the mountains and mingles with the rich and famous. However, he is not interested in skiing —not at all. Instead, he steals skis, poles, boots, gloves and sunglasses from the wealthy guests and sells them at a lower price to the less-fortunate workers and kids who, like him, live in the town below.
This way, he can support himself and his twenty-something sister Louise (Léa Seydoux), an unfocused, somewhat selfish wanderer who seems not to care too much for their well-being. Most of the time, she happens to be too busy flitting from job to job and from lover to lover — with little, if any, success.
So it’s entirely up to Simon to keep them afloat, and he’s a quick learner. Even at age 12, he can cook and clean and knows ski equipment better than even expert skiers, even though he is no skier himself. He’s a businessman in a risky line of work. And a lonely kid in need of love.
The many layers in the story of Louise and Simone are insightfully explored by Franco-Swiss filmmaker Ursula Meier (Home) in her arresting L'enfant d'en haut (Sister/La Hermana), which was featured at the Berlinale and it’s Switzerland’s submission for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Oscars.
Simon does indeed live two lives at once: an imaginary life up in the Alps, where he pretends he’s a wealthy kid with loving parents, since the stolen ski gear makes him feel he belongs there; and his real life, down in the town at the foot of the mountain, where he is just another worker and a kid with no parents and a distant sister.
As Meier told the Herald in an interview, having an imaginary life makes it easier for Simon to survive his real one. He’s not absolutely alone since he has Louise, but whereas he has grown more responsible and composed, she’s actually a burden as she relies on him for almost everything. She can’t (or won’t) even hold a job. Indeed, they’re both pretty much alone.
L'enfant d'en haut does not only observe its two characters individually (there are, for instance, separate subplots involving them), but, above all, it focuses its sensitive gaze on their relationship of co-dependence, which has more sides that remain kept in secrecy.
However, an hour into the film an unexpected revelation changes the way you see them and what they mean to each other. But it doesn’t change the course of the main story. It’s just that now you see fundamental layers that turn the whole thing into something far more complex.
In most films, unexpected and abrupt twists that redefine the scenario are nothing but unsubstantial narrative gimmicks used to fill in the lack of good ideas. But here you have the exact opposite case. It makes sense that you learn what you learn when you learn it. It couldn’t have happened before. And it doesn’t feel forced for a second.
In formal terms, L'enfant d'en haut shares some traits with films Rosetta, The Son, or The Kid with the Bike, by the Dardenne brothers, meaning the camera almost stays always on the characters, the mise-en-scène is austere, there’s no use of incidental music, and a documentary-like feeling permeates it all. But whereas the Dardenne are equally focused on both the intimate drama and its social context, Meier places social realism in a second place and favours the fable.
She’s after portraying the everyday life of Simon and Louise, and in so doing she reveals a universe of broken ties, unrequited love and emotional lesions. In the end, it’s all about their thoughts, moods, and feelings. L'enfant d'en haut is indeed a very heart-rending film, but there’s not a hint of facile sentimentalism. There’s sentiment aplenty, but conveyed with restraint, in a low key. There are no judgments on the characters’ actions either.
It’s not about preaching. Instead, this is the kind of film that asks viewers to care for the characters without ever being condescending or moralizing. Yet it asks you to think about individual and collective morals. That’s precisely what makes it all the more fascinating.
Such a character study had to have outstanding performers to embody nuanced characters that live in their own, personal worlds. Plus there are a handful of quite painful scenes. Take the one where Simon learns about his origins. Or when he’s hit by a skier whose ski gear he’d stolen.
It’s deeply satisfying to see that both Kacey Mottet Klein and Léa Seydoux are simply superb, as natural as spontaneous as they come. They feel very real and immediate. You believe them. Though there’s a good deal of dialogue, there are also long stretches of silence. And it is during these silences when you feel most what an atmospheric film L'enfant d'en haut is. Needless to say, credit is due to cinematographer Agnes Godard (Beau Travail, The Dreamlife of Angels) who infuses the film with a moderate dose of melancholy and softness.
At a time when most mainstream movies as well as large part of indie ones are predictable and one-dimensional, L'enfant d'en haut offers a cinematic experience rich in affections and affliction, an experience in which blood ties, love and the absence of love are indelible marks.