Living on the edge

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) is a 12-year-old Swiss boy who lives with his sister, Louise (Lea Seydoux), in a large, rundown housing complex in a valley situated beneath a sky-high ski resort catering to the wealthy. The contrast between the life he has and the life he would like to have could not be starker.

Sister (L’enfant d’en haut), directed and co-written by Ursula Meier, follows Simon’s conniving, unnerving attempts to get ahead. Ferrety and quicksilver, he always has an eye to the main chance. It’s one of the many excellences of this film that Meier doesn’t sentimentalize this boy or convert him into some working-class antihero.

Simon’s chief occupation—profession, really—is stealing from the rich skiers whose bags of unguarded equipment are ripe for the picking. Having secured lift tickets, even though he doesn’t ski, Simon rifles through the piles and helps himself to food, gloves, goggles and skis, which he then sells in the valley as “clearance” items. (Few buyers believe him.) Louise, still in her 20s, perpetually walking out on jobs and men, contributes little to the arrangement. Simon supports them with his stealing, but one gets the feeling he would steal anyway—for the thrill and the sense of entitlement. When one of the seasonal workers at the resort (Martin Compston) catches him in a storage room and withholds the booty from the boy, Simon snaps back, “Give me my money for the skis.” He justifies his thefts by saying the resort-goers “are so rich they don’t care and they’ll just buy a new one.”

Atop the aerie Simon feels momentarily moneyed. He pretends to be the son of wealthy parents and, for sport almost, insinuates himself into the lives of his prey. One mother (Gillian Anderson) and her young brood are sitting ducks, although Simon overplays his hand. He offers to pay for their meal, and, even when the offer is turned down, persists to the point of desperation. It’s one of the few times in the film when Simon loses his cool, and he does so because he can’t turn off the impersonation. He’s locked into his fantasy.

He’s not easily defeated. A skier catches Simon stealing his goggles and pounds him in full view of some resort guests, and Simon just picks himself up and moves on. He enlists children to aid him in his stealth raids. He has no great illusions about Louise, who always seems to be exiting whatever situation she’s in.

He taunts her at one point: “The day I’m bigger than you, what will you do?” No love is lost between these hardscrabble siblings, and yet they are bonded by their need to survive. In a way, Louise is as much of a dissembler as Simon; she’s just groggier.

There’s a great moment when Louise brings a man into their cramped apartment at night and proceeds to the bedroom as Simon, on the couch, instinctively breaks a cigarette and sticks the filters in his ears. No doubt he’s done this before. The routine of his life, in general, is highly predictable, except for those eruptive moments when he’s caught out. The movie follows his life through the Christmas to Easter ski season, and when the snows melt, Simon is suddenly without a guise. He’s still charged up, but he’s also bereft. Swinging alone on the ski lifts, he seems more isolated than ever, although he’s the sort of kid who is alone even in crowds.

Meier introduces a major plot twist about halfway through, but it’s much more than a gimmick. It succeeds in both explaining Simon and Louise and extending their mysteriousness. Meier is not a big one for backstory, and yet what little we know of Simon and Louise seems like plenty. Despite the film’s obvious class trappings, she doesn’t turn Sister into a socioeconomic case study. Shot in a glancing, often hand-held style, it has a documentary feel without seeming ostentatious—as is sometimes the case in the films of the Dardenne brothers, a clear influence on Meier.

Her film is closer to Truffaut’s The 400 Blows in the way it gets inside the gumption and desperation of childhood lived on the edge. It’s a terrific, bracingly sad movie.

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