Sister (L’enfant d’en haut)

France/Switzerland (2012) Dir. Ursula Meier

Twelve year-old Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) and his older sister Lousie (Léa Seydoux) live in a housing complex below a luxury Swiss ski resort. With Louise unable to keep a job and sending more time sleeping around it is up to Simon to be the one to keep their household going, by stealing from the wealthy guest at the ski-resort and selling them to the local kids. But when Simon teams up with British kitchen worker Mike (Martin Compston) the relationship between brother and sister is truly tested.

French writer/director Ursula Meier has a history of depicting the family unit with a quirky slant as seen in her last film Home but for this Silver Bear winning outing, Meier follows a more dramatic and accessible route, albeit with her own unique twist. Sister is a tale about family, poverty and deception with the question of who is deceiving whom when it seem none of the principle cast know little about honesty.

If it wasn’t for Simon’s hustling and thieving he and Louise would never eat or have a roof over their heads. Despite being the oldest, Louise is the one who blows all the money on drink and night time activities. She has a cleaning job in the chalets but rarely attends it, proving to be a source of frustration for the youngster yet he remains devoted to providing her with money. Simon makes a decent wage from his scamming but it is jeopardised when he is caught stealing food from the resort kitchen by Mike. Smelling a chance to make some money of his own by buying Simon’s stock cheap and selling it himself. However Mike is a Fagin with a conscience and when things get out of control he tries to set Simon onto a straighter path.

The ideal life of being in a family and having someone to hold and comfort him appeals to Simon and he seems to recognise this with the arrival of a single mum Kristin Jansen (Gillian Anderson) and her two young children. Seeing Kristin dote on her boys triggers something in Simon who ingratiates himself with the family, pretending his name is Julien like the eldest son and basking in Kristin’s hospitality. But what of his own parents? The truth is never revealed but the replies both Simon and Louise give are murky and conflicting – just like the stories Louise tells each of her suitors when they meet Simon that he is only staying with her for a while. Louise is a bad boy magnet which upsets Simon but his sister shrugs it off, usually with the help of booze. However there is one guy who Louise thinks may be the one, until Simon reveals a dark family secret that ruins everything.

Meier creates a bleak and uncomfortable world that is unknown to most of us yet we are easily drawn into it and can’t leave it until she lets us go. Here we follow a young boy who by rights we shouldn’t support or have any sympathy for yet that is exactly the feelings Simon engenders in the audience. In fact we seem to applaud the boy’s temerity and Del Boy-esque gift of the gab that enables him to flog his stolen wares with success. Superbly essayed by Kacey Mottet Klein in a powerhouse performance from one so young, Simon has a catalogue of stock answers and excuses to get him out of trouble and if that doesn’t work, his Pimpernel like methods of near invisible escapes serves him well. Klein is tasked with taken his young rascal character on a tumultuous emotional journey and it is a challenge that he rises to and conquers with aplomb and nuanced maturity for a fourteen year-old  in just his third role (his first was in Meier’s Home four years earlier).

Louise proves to be amore complex character as the film progresses. Initially a one dimensional stroppy elder teen sister, the big revelation from Simon sees the inner depths brought to the surface, revealing a semi-tragic heroine in the making. The apparently age defying Léa Seydoux has her work cut out for her bringing humanity and pathos to such a dislikeable and irredeemable character but the mid film change allows this to happen. This doesn’t make Louise as sympathetic as Simon but at least her human side begins to show although old habits die hard. A scene where a repentant Simon wants to sleep alongside his elder sister is only agreed if he pays up 200 Euro – money she then drinks away when he is asleep.

To keep the international flavour of this film alive, along with the presence of X-Files star Gillian Anderson and Ken Loach discovery Martin Compston, the snowy Swiss landscapes are as much a cast member as the actors, highlighted here via some beautiful photography from long time Meier collaborator Agnes Godard. The juxtaposition of the gloriously heavenly white ski slopes with the dingy, impoverished tower block in which Simon and Louise inhabit help establish the “them or us” divide alluded in the original French title of The Child From Above.

With an ending to keep you guessing that is as poetic as it is frustrating, Meier brings us another steely and haunting look at the complexities of familial relationships with Sister. It’s an unapologetic film that doesn’t provide answers but it does make you think and make you wonder about how dangerous a lie can be – for the both the one telling it and the one living it.