Sister – Ursula Meier and the tragic world of children forced to be adults. (Film Review)

The opening scene of Sister shows us an as yet unnamed Simon (Kacey Mottet Klien) in a toilet cubicle examining items he has stolen from the wealthy people around him for their re-sale value. His face is covered by a black ski mask, and he adds a helmet and goggles to the outfit in order to disappear more into the background, the mesh of a crowd that from the backdrop to the pleasures of the wealthy. He is next seen rummaging through the pockets of hanging parkers to search out some lunch. We feel for the boy – because he is very young – and immediately recognise him as hungry and desperate, but when our sympathies are aroused, so is our admiration for the boy’s survival skills. We soon realise he is loitering in a ski resort populated by international holiday-makers and international temps who come to the resort in winter to work; No one knows Simon, no one recognises him and no one suspects him. This becomes a profound essay on the way he exists in the world in a film that is larger than any of its characters and disarmingly political in its messages.

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When Simon has completed his days “work” (remember that great communist saying, “the thief has worked for his reward also”) he descends the mountain. The terrain becomes less beautiful, less pure, less white with snow. Its grimy, dirty and slushy.  He attached his unsold wares to a sled that he drags across busy roads and gravelly fields till he arrives at a large block of units where he lives with his sister Louise (Lea Seydoux) who is older, can’t hold down a job and can’t choose a decent boyfriend. The siblings love each other, but struggle to survive.  Simon seems to understand they need to work, get money and live, whereas Louise has a deeper denial that is forcing her to screw them over, often thwarting Simon in his attempts at survival. Neither can understand the other’s point of view and perpetually haunting every interaction is the question asked by every stranger, where are their parents?

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Primarily the film examines the difference in response to this situation between Simon and Louise, but it also is hauntingly about the material differences of the people inhabiting the ski resort. Meier has the assistance of the remarkable Agnes Godard as cinematographer, images of gondolas repeatedly carrying the young Simon to the top of the mountain where money, food and love are plentiful and then down to the bottom of the mountain where happiness, food and love are scarce. The Gondolas disappear into an unforgiving mist, and emerge as they make their way to the top. We see the film from Simon’s point of view but Godard gives us more in her beautiful shots, regularly above Simon looking down on him as we judge him and his sister, and by his side as we search the narrative for someone to blame for their plight. Poignant is a moment when Simon and Louise stand apart after a fight by a busy road, as car after car drive by them, always leaving them to each other to sort their terrible problems out alone.

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Impossible to discuss without spoiling the film is detail in the remarkable way Meier posits the reactions of both the siblings to their parents, and there is a lot to discuss when the film draws to a close, so my suggestion is see it with a friend you admire for their broadness of mind, because I found myself wanting to discuss it at great length. It’s Meier’s script (written with Antoine Jaccoud) and it is Meier who directs the remarkable young actors in their excellent portrayals of these very complex young people. In Meier’s mind and through Godard’s eye we get two remarkable portraits that I consider searing in their honesty, particularly of an older sister being forced into care she doesn’t want to take responsibility for. Meier’s unflinching eye penetrates deep and the characterisation is excellent. She directs two fine actors in the young people, Kacey Mottet Klien both older and younger than his age (whatever that might really be) and Lea Seydoux as Louise, brilliantly haunted with a deep residing anger that is really abject fear. Terrible things happen when people are this afraid.

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Three more outstanding talents to mention, the remarkable editing of Nelly Quettier, the haunting music of John Parish collaborating with PJ Harvey (who is uncredited, but listed as collaborator on the album where the music is sourced) and a stunning Gillian Anderson who has a small but crucial role as the only wealthy person in the resort who notices the ‘nobody’ Simon, and who takes pity on him and offers him lunch. This one act of generosity is something Simon has no response for and in a crucial to the end scene, he battles Anderson (known only as The English Lady) to pay for their lunch. By the end of the film we understand by Simon thinks he must pay for a mother’s kindness, and this only renders the scene more heartbreaking in retrospect.

Sister is originally named  L’Enfant d’en haut or The Child From Above.

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