Ursula Meier’s first film was the high/low concept movie Home, about a family living beside a motorway, a curious blend of the cerebral and the emotional. On the one hand it appears to reference Godard’s Weekend or the work of Ballard. On the other it’s a study of the modern family and the extraordinary pressures it faces. It’s also one of those films where the conceit controls the narrative. A where-can-this-go-next kind of film.
Sister, her follow-up, has a different kind of feel. We’re in more traditional European art movie territory. It has been compared to the work of Dardennes brothers but this is also the neo-realist territory of Bicycle Thieves and its ilk. Meier locates her story (interestingly her credit is for ‘scenario’, thereafter working with other writers to flesh out the story and dialogue) within the world of the Swiss winter ski season. A brother and a sister live in a high rise block, below the gleaming peaks, and struggle to make ends meet. Simon, 12, has turned to petty theft. He steals anything from skis to goggles and sells them on at discount prices. Meanwhile his sister, Louise, who is in her early 20s, is something of a waster, going with random guys and unable to look after herself. It’s Simon’s criminal enterprise which keeps them afloat.
This premise immediately sets the film up for moments of exquisite tension, with the pint-sized Simon constantly on the point of getting caught. This strand is balanced by the development of his relationship with Louise, one that becomes ever more complex. At one point, he resorts to paying her for affection. In an uncomfortable scene, the 12 year old curls up in bed with her. These are characters for whom the distinction between maturity and immaturity barely exists: survival in their strange isolated world is all that matters. Until the final scenes, when Louise finally starts to take responsibility for both her own life and Simon’s.
All of this is told with an economy which ensures the narrative, surprises and all, moves along briskly. A couple of showy cameos are more or less seamlessly integrated and the acting of the two leads, Kacey Mottet Klein & Léa Seydoux is impeccable. Klein gives on of those astonishing performances which only children can, one which seems to almost transcend ‘acting’.The cinematography makes the most of the peaks and troughs of the mountain landscape, suggesting the way in which its geography maps on to human geology: those who bask in the white glory of the summit, where the cold is another luxury, are opposed to those condemned to the muddy trenches of the valleys.
Meier’s vision is perhaps reminiscent of the work of Jelinek, observing the way that those who inhabit the uplands, whilst ready to condemn Simon as a thief, have no scruples buying their bargains from him. Everyone is complicit in an amoral system. Beneath this observation lurks, perhaps, an icier critique. Why should some be granted the financial freedom to roam the beautiful peaks whilst others have to steal to get by. The moment when Simon seeks a hug from the idealised mother figure, Gillian Anderson, is the moment where the worlds collide. Here the social critique is fully rounded, as the audience roots for the thief and hopes that her victim can find it in her heart, and perhaps redeem herself, by forgiving him. It’s an affecting narrative moment in a impressively constructed film.