Ursula Meier’s second feature film L’enfant d’en haut (Sister), which takes part to the Official Selection of the LUX Prize 2012, opens with the image of a 12-year-old boy, bundled up and overloaded, who goes forth in life as if wearing ski boots, with difficulty but also undeterrable determination.
Although it may not be a direct source of inspiration, this film starring the moving Kacey Mottet Klein as Simon and Léa Seydoux as his irresponsable elder sister Louise cleary evokes the Dardenne brothers, both in the sobriety with which Meier depicts the hardship of the young hero’s existence and in the contained manner in which he expresses his emotions. However, the film also stands out for its great imagination, as a reflection of Simon’s ingenuity, and its fine balance between realism and fable.
Simon, who lives in the lowlands of a poor, industrial Switzerland with a sister who is so often absent that he forever fears never to see her return, every day takes a cable car up to the highlands of a rich Switzerland, that of ski resorts for the rich. As a native he may be an expert in all things to do with the mountain, but we never see him on the ski runs because his journey is one outside the flagpoles, behind the scenes of these expensive pastimes - in the bathroom, and in the changing rooms.
There, above the peaks, Simon can invent another life for himself, pretend that he has rich parents, and ask people how the snow is today to look like a holiday maker. But also he can steal gloves, sunglasses, and skis from those who he knows will buy new ones straight away instead of looking for them, and he can dip his hands into the survival backpacks of the wealthy, filled with money and sandwiches, to ensure his and Louise’s own survival. As he tells a suspicious resort restaurant waiter, he is not stealing to buy himself toys but to buy loo paper and pasta.
Beyond necessary household items, the film’s cheeky and resourceful main character also uses the money he makes from reselling ski kit to those with less money to keep his sister close to him. He is not interested in the wads of cash that he is making or in the things that he could buy with them, but sees money as means with which to buy affection. We see this when he gives presents to his sister, when he offers to pay a skiing mother who has invited him to sit at her table (and to whom he introduces himself with, "My name is Julien, like your son"), or even when we negotiates a simple cuddle for 180 francs.
Behind Simon’s story is that of a mother who never wanted him, one that gives place to the film’s greatest twist. Simon bears the responsibilities of an adult: finding a stove, doing the washing, giving his sister work by teaching her how to wax skis. But in the end this skinny little boy is simply a child who wants a mother, someone with whom to share Christmas, instead of spending the day on his own watching the tree that he uselessly cut down himself, abandoned on the balcony.
Interview with the director:
How was Sister born?
There were several triggers. I wanted to work with Kacey Mottet Klein again, who had acted in Home. At the time, he was very little at seven and a half years old. When I worked with him, it was very empirical, intuitive, and quite experimental. It was fascinating, as he was a blank canvass. I wanted to take it a step further. He also had this grace that some actors have, he has something very powerful. At the same time, I had long been fascinated by the industrial plain near Monthey, at the foot of the Swiss Alps. The place is a witness to today's world. There is something very strong in this verticality. On one side, there is the world above [the film's original title is "The child from above"], with its opulent ski resorts a little like Disneyland and, on the other, what is below, grey, and a little sad. This is what inspired the story of a young boy from the plain who only goes up to altitude to steal ski kit.
You however spin the cliché on its head. In your film, there is much more air below than on the mountain peaks, which are suffocating…
We avoided filming the mountains like a panorama to give hommage to the beauty of the Alps. Above, we stay very close to the child and tighten the frame. And below, it's wider, you can breathe more easily, it's more dream-like. This, in a way, rebalances the two territories.
In Sister, like in Home, there is again the idea of an odd, if not dysfunctional, family. When did this theme appear?
Quite fast. I didn't want the film to gravitate around a fake moral suspense between Simon and Louise, the leading female character. Not only does she know about Simon's stealing, but she actually takes part in it, practically becoming his employee in the second part of the film. Both live in a form of utopia, a little like in Home. They try to live differently according to their own laws and rules. Kacey and Léa Seydoux [who plays Louise], are beautiful together: They have the same grace in front of the camera.
The description of life backstage in the ski resorts seems very realistic. How did you research this?
One winter, I rented out a flat up in the mountains. I followed the police of a ski resort day and night, and I met seasonal workers. They live in difficult conditions and are sometimes exploited by the restaurant owners. They can't find anywhere to stay and work very hard. The police is completely overwhelmed, and cannot always conduct all the necessary security checks...
What changed between Home and Sister?
Home was extremely precise. The writing was meticulous. Sister is more free. And then, Homeneeded important preparation, because of its screenplay. We needed an empty section of the highway and a lot of cars… Here [for Sister], I filmed a lot with children. With them, you have to accept that you simply can't control everything. Somehow, I was forced to have more confidence in my directing instinct.