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Griffith Maloney [Celluloid 10.18.12] France drama

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Ursula Meier's new film Sister spans the length of the ski season, starting in Christmas and ending around easter. Our would be heroes, Simon and Louise, live in the shadow of the huge ski resort, far removed from the wealthy who frequent it. To them it is the specter of failure and this threat sets the tone for a bleak and emotional telling of the struggles two siblings must endure to survive. Sister is beautiful in its starkness and its grim determined style, the performances, cinematography and soundtrack all serve to lend it an air of emotional menace.

The symbol of this hidden danger is the opulent mountain top resort where the rich and well endowed frolic about in sweaters and jewelry that cost more than your last car. Separated from this nordic playground by a small cable car ride is the poor wasteland of the valley floor where the disadvantaged live packed into squalor caked tenements. Our protagonist Simon lives here, in a sloppy apartment with his listless unemployed sister Louise. During the day SImon travels up the mountain side to steal ski equipment from the rich, during the night he sells it to the people of the valley at a huge discount, using his profit to buy groceries and toilet paper. He is a young man holding up a herculean burden and as they always do, things begin to fall apart.

The artistry with which director Ursula Meier and cinematographer Agnès Godard capture this picture of insurmountable challenge is breathtaking. The style of shooting is particularly interesting. Instead of capturing the vast landscape of the mountain top and the dramatic vistas of the slaloms, Godard focuses on close ups and tight crowded shots and the ugly backs of maintenance buildings. The dull strip malls are given prominence over the gilded halls of the rich because that's the world that Simon sees. Simon doesn't see the beauty of the place in which he operates because its been designed for the eyes of the wealthy. Simon only sees the equipment left unattended for the taking and sometimes, rarely, the faces of the people behind all of this insulting opulence.

The crux of Sister is the relationship between Simon and Louise. I expected as much from the American title but what surprised me was the raw depth that Ms. Meier conjures from the young performers. The emotional resonance of two people tied together by the bonds of family and circumstance is what keeps the audience glued to the screen. Everything in Sister is designed to draw your attention to this. From the low brooding musical score, to the constricting sets and angles, to the familiar family figures that Simon tries to create surrogates of, mother, father, brother. Simon’s journey is the center of this story and it is striking to see such a young man perform such a role. Then again The 400 Blows, to which Sister owes a certain debt, is carried by the performance of Jean-Pierre Leaud who was only 14 at the time.

Kacey Mottet Klein, who is 14, plays the young thief with a confidence and attitude that can only be found in a gifted young actor. His portrayal of Simon's chameleon act is a resounding achievement. Each of Simon's many faces, the upper class child, the young tough salesman, the loving brother is played with verve and presence. Simon lives in the borderlands between child and adult and his struggle to fit the coat of the "man of the house" is the most compelling facet of the film. What's best about Klein's performance is that he never lets Simon bow to defeat. Every setback, however harsh and true to life, is overcome with a certain childish fire that only comes from being young and being set against the world.

A worthwhile foil for our young focus is found in his older sister Louise played by the absolutely stunning Lea Seydoux. A beautiful and talented actress, Ms. Seydoux’s aura is only enhanced by such a character. Louise is at once helpless and indomitable, usurious and caring. She lies around the house, heads off for days at a time leaving Simon to fend for himself. She is infuriating and crass but at the same time we can't help for this poor girl who wanted something different in her life than to be stuck in a rundown apartment with her little brother.

In Sister Ursula Meier shows herself to be a extremely thoughtful filmmaker. She served as an assistant director under the prolific Alain Tanner and her pervious feature Home is a well framed dissection of family drama. In Sister she displays a broadening sense of thematic connections. On its surface Sister seems like a rich vs poor drama with just a touch of new wave French style but Ms. Meier takes it to a dramatically different and in some ways transcendent place. It is a movie that at once seems very grounded and realistic but also is ethereal and magical in its moments. The visual themes are most arresting here. Both Simon and Louise spend time putting on different costumes, outfits for the tenement, uniforms for work, fancy clothes to blend in with the elite. In many ways Sister is a film about labels and masks and Ms. Meier’s handling of this concept is wonderful.

Sister is a brutal film in its realism. In its unabashed portrayal a small family living on the edge of everything, unable or unwilling to find their way back to the center. This is the kind of film that breaks my heart to watch. I was tempted to cover my eyes in sheer empathy with the characters on screen. This film will put you through the wringer. It is brave and uncompromising. Simon and Louise are so close to real people that it is incredibly painful to watch them struggle through their lives, painful but at times joyously rewarding.

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