Ursula Meier’s (Home) second feature, and the Swiss submission for the 85th Academy Awards, is a wonderfully low-key drama about a seemingly fractured family, denial, and the absence of childhood not unlike The Dardenne brothers’ immaculate The Kid with a Bike (which screened at the LFF last year).
12-year-old Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) and his sister Louise (Léa Seydoux) live at the foot of a luxury Swiss ski resort. From the first time we meet him, there’s a gleeful roguishness to Simon; he hustles his wares – stolen from the resort’s wealthy patrons – to other kids at the resort, while it’s subtly suggested that that his sister is prostituting herself. As Louise leaves each day to apparently go to work, there’s a potent irony in Simon’s loneliness; a place of joy for holiday-making families is one of monotony for him. But what could be relentlessly sombre lithely glides from drama to comedy and then back again; particularly amusing is a sub-plot in which Simon schemes with a a resort chef (Martin Compston) to sell the goods he steals.
The playfulness between the leads is what drives Sister forth; every moment is naturalistic and believable, if underscored with a certain sadness; where, for instance, are their parents? John Parish’s dissonant, pulsing score and Agnès Godard’s evocative cinematography create an airy, atmospheric feel; the picturesque mountains foreground the apartment block in which they live, enhancing their lack of place both at the resort itself and in life generally.
Viewers might be surprised that, given her billing and prominence, Gillian Anderson – playing a mother with who Simon briefly connects while left to his own devices – doesn’t show up until act two, and then merely fleets in and out of the film, with screen time totalling less than 10 minutes. She comes to represent the motherly void missing in Simon’s life, an inadvertent emotional comforter for him, though one which he himself inevitably struggles to resolve. While her scant appearance does feel a tad cynical – as though a known English-speaker was cast just to help sell the film – her performance is rock-solid, and her character’s screen time needs to be brief for thematic purposes.
An unexpected twist abounds at the end of act two, one which turns things entirely on their head and permanently alters our perspective of events, raising more questions just as it does the intrigue level. Straits become resultantly dire, but again, the tone never becomes maudlin or needlessly downcast, even as the level of incident ramps down in the final half hour. That it remains consistently engaging is a testament to the chemistry shared between the two leads, and Anderson’s small but significant contribution to proceedings; a stolen embrace speaks volumes about the state of things, and the stinging final shot is simply unforgettable.
Briskly paced and as funny as it is emotionally resonant, Sister is easy viewing despite a potentially grim premise.
Sister is released in the UK on October 26th.
This article was first posted on October 11, 2012