‘Sister’ opens at the Music Box Theater on Friday, January 4, 2013.
It’s fitting that Ursula Meier’s Sister (L'Enfant D'En Haut) (France / Switzerland, 2012) is appearing here just after the circus of our own ‘fiscal cliff’ negotiations. The circumstances under which the young and resourceful Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) and his layabout sister Louise (Léa Seydoux) live are unique to them, yet there’s a subtle but insistent undercurrent of the us surviving in the them world, employing the only options the larger culture has made available – here, thievery and golddigging.
Simon and his sister live in a low-income apartment building situated near a lush Swiss Alps skiing resort, and every morning Simon devotes himself to his own chosen vocation – stealing the skis, equipment, food and clothing of the resort’s customers and reselling the booty among his fellow apartment-dwellers (and even to some of the resort's own employees). Simon is a shrewd hustler (he’s somewhere between twelve and fifteen years old, according to his own slippery admissions), and possesses fearlessness and business smarts that might be the envy of honest retailers twice his age. But there’s little self-satisfaction in the talent he employs here; this is what Simon has to do for he and Louise to survive, since he’s still too young to get a legitimate job, and Louise is too clueless and undirected to take on the responsibility herself. Her approach is to hook up with an ever-revolving series of better-off guys and hope that one of them can invent a sense of Something She Has To Offer other than a nice butt in a pair of jeans.
The absence of adults in their lives is conspicuous, and when Simon makes an odd connection with one of the clients of the resort, Kristin Jansen, a British single-mother with three kids of her own (Gillian Anderson, who seems to be working exclusively in Europe these days), he hangs around the outskirts of their vacation, trying to impress her with his independent resourcefulness. He also fosters a tentative friendship with an Irish kitchen worker at the resort, Mike (Martin Compston), who upbraids him for hiding stolen goods in one of the pantries, but ends up collaborating with him, later on, on an even better place to cache the merchandise. Louise worries that a coat Simon has given her might be spotted by its previous owner, but Simon, with Tom-Ripley-esque nonchalance, assures her that it’ll barely be missed – the previous owner will buy a new one without a second thought.
I found it interesting that the French title translates as ‘The Boy At The Top,’ while the English title shifts the emphasis to Louise’s character. At one point in the film, we learn something about Louise that profoundly affects our regard for her, but we know better than to make allowances for Simon based on that; he’s admirably steadfast throughout, for better or worse. Just as adult hustlers could learn something from Simon, most adult actors only wish they could find the level of commitment that Kacey Mottet Klein brings to his character.
In choosing this particular environment to tell this particular story, Ursula Meier, and her screenwriter, Antoine Jaccoud, fashion a stand-in for the socioeconomic culture at-large. Simon and Louise’s situation – in fact, the various circumstances of all of the characters in the film that we meet – may arguably have been shaped by political and institutional decisions made fifteen or twenty years ago, by people who never have to live with the eventual consequences. Western culture, as depicted in microcosm here, seems to be a world of haves and have-nots, where the haves can indulge, but not fulfill, the good life they may have justifiably earned, and the have-nots are reduced to menial labor, shrewd scavenging or simply surrendering themselves to short-term fate. Kristin can afford to take her three kids on vacation to the Alps, but where’s Dad? Mike’s a hard worker, but where he was before and where he’ll go when the season ends, aren't even brought up – these days, who cares? He’s lucky to have a job at all, right?
Meier has a lot to say about these particular characters, and the world we share with them; the nobility, or anonymity, that hard work can confer, legitimately or illicitly, and the various ways families are formed, sometimes lovingly, sometimes desperately. Simon’s daily trips from valley to mountaintop are a stark metaphor for the world we all live in today – he, and we, travel the distance between in isolation, in midair, with firm footing far, far away from us.
Note: 'Sister' is Switzerland's entry for the 2013 Foreign Film Oscar.