SISTER. Starring: Kacey Mottet Klein, Lea Seydoux, Martin Compston, and Gillian Andersen. Directed by Ursula Meier. Rated M (Mature themes and coarse language). 97 min.
This subtitled, Swiss drama tells the story of a young boy, Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein), who lives with and supports his older sister, Louise (Lea Seydoux). To do so, he steals from guests at an expensive, upper-class ski resort high in the mountains of Switzerland.
The film was distinguished by a special award (Silver Bear) at the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival. This is an austere and beautifully sustained movie that is directed compellingly by a very talented Director, Ursula Meier.
Simon is a 12 year- old boy who steals equipment, clothes and food from affluent holiday-makers and sells what he can lower down (and on) the mountain so that he and Louise can survive. The relationship between Simon and Louise is not an easy one. Louise can't hold down a steady job. She has formed damaging relationships with lots of men that never work out, and she is difficult to live with. Mostly, except when she disappears out of self-interest, she waits for Simon to bring his pickings home.
The movie contrasts effectively the wealthy life of those at the ski resort with the poverty of those who live below it. Simon meets Mike (Martin Compston), a Scottish chef at the resort who realises that Simon is a child in need. Simon lives next to mud flats at the bottom of the ski lift, and Mike knows that what Simon steals he needs to stay alive. Simon quickly learns the advantage of teaming up with Mike, and in the process he becomes overly attached to a wealthy woman, Kristin (Gillian Andersen), who is staying at the resort with her two children. Simon wants from her the attention he has never had from parents he says have died. He is attracted to Kristin, but cautious about what he might be asked to give, and he is totally ignorant of how to sustain the attachment.
The film raises a host of questions which it intentionally fails to answer. Is Louise really Simon's sister? We are never sure what the dynamics of their attachment to each other have been, or are. Is Simon's account of his life that he tells to other people really true? In the middle of the movie we learn a shocking account that is very different. And what will become of Simon and Louise in the future? The film doesn't tell us where their future together lies, and if they have a future together, we know it will be problematic.
Basically, this is a movie about poverty - emotional as well as physical - and the will to survive. It contrasts poignantly life at the top among the rich, with life at the bottom among the poor. The style of the whole film is essentially observational where the human weaknesses of Simon and Louise and others are explored for us to observe. But importantly, the act of observing also serves to stress the essential humanity of what we are seeing. There is a mutual dependency between Simon and Louise that is captured beautifully and sensitively by both Director and actors in all of its emotional complexity.
Despite its sadness, the movie veers away from any sentimentality. Simon is a person who is anchored to his own deceit, and there is never any question that he will go on stealing. However, it is a story as much about Simon's stealing being a predictable way out of personally tragic situations, as it is about Simon's stealing being an activity that is morally wrong.
The acting by Klein and Seydoux is outstanding, and the Director's keen observing eye helps to make this movie a touching, multilayered film about troubled people. The film has excellent cinematography which captures Swiss scenery starkly, and at times brutally.
The film itself is a rich and rewarding expose of how some are forced to live. This is a movie to think about a lot more after the film is over. Its enjoyment value creeps up on you, as the extent of the troubles of Louise and Simon become obvious, and you know that there is no real solution in sight.
The film ends as Simon and Louise pass each other on the ski lift going in different directions, wanting to make contact with each other (again), but not knowing how that will happen.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office fir Film and Broadcasting.
Out October 31st 2013.