Sister, co-written (with Antoine Jaccoud) and directed by Ursula Meier (Home), is about the lengths a hardened youngster is willing to go to maintain that much-desired family foundation. Set against the mighty beauty of the Swiss Alps the small-scale story follows Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein), a capable and intuitive young boy trying to provide for himself and his irresponsible older sister Louise (Lea Seydoux, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol), by pilfering skis, gloves, goggles, money and food from the rich tourists at the ski resort up the mountain. The invisible masked marvel slips within the vacationers, and hauls everything down the mountain remarkably inconspicuously. In the valley tower complex where they live he sells his stolen wares to the richer local kids, and swindles the seasonal workers. Louise comes and goes, jumping between men (but her upgrade from a jerk in a Volvo to a Mr. Red BMW suggests her taste is improving), but is grateful of anything he brings in. The money doesn’t last long and though the pair co-exists, they rarely connect. When Simon’s mountain missions get increasingly dangerous, and the family secrets begin to reveal themselves to others, this bleak and atmospheric drama hits emotional resonance.
Sublime photography from Agnes Godard (who has worked with Claire Denis on a number of projects including Beau Travail) beautifully lenses the stunning snowy beauty of the Alps backdrop during the height of ski season, but also gets into the dirty, sloppy non-tourist spots and bathrooms where Simon lays low, examines and shovels his goods. For Simon, this world is a glistening wonderland, with a wealth of riches free for the taking. Simon and Louise’s tower apartment and the barren, desolate valley appear to be in the mountain’s immense shadow. Often the characters are shot from a distance, cast as insignificant against the cascading slopes and within the sparse, seemingly infinite ice lakes. The discordant hard rock score seemed like an imperfect fit to this quietly observant film, but it really added to the film’s at times unnerving mood.
As we watch Simon pilfer from the season visitors, there is genuine tension, as we understand the risks that he takes and the repercussions of being caught. Simon makes a fatal mistake towards the end of the film, and it further upsets the already tenuous relationship he has with Louise. Simon has become reliant on thievery and knows no better than to take advantage of any opportunity. Throughout the short span of time addressed by the film, we understand that his primary concern is ensuring that there is enough money to provide for necessary items, not to splurge on material pleasures. He always favoured his business, and his sister’s wellbeing over the feelings of strangers, but when he hurts someone who trusted him and has begun to care for him, he takes it too far. While Louise has been an irresponsible hindrance, it is gradually revealed the extent of Simon’s weight on her. Simon's forced bypass of adolescence has weighty repercussions, and Louise’s character, while hardly sympathetic, eventually earns some. The open-ended finale feels perfect, considering the complex turn of events that leaves these characters alone and without hope, only to realize just how much they need each other in their lives.
While initially feeling repetitive, this austere drama also flirts with being melodramatic, but it always keeps a viewer guessing. The dangerous and unpredictable life of the young entrepreneur continues at the bottom of the mountain in the fascinating central relationship, which offers up several shocks to the system. Featuring a pair of terrific performances from these natural young actors, ‘Sister’ is a sound festival investment.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22
Sister is screening as part of the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival.
Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.