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In Sister, a boy helps he and his sister survive by stealing from rich
folks at a posh ski resort in the Swiss Alps. But the boy and his
sister are both a bit more than each seems in this provocative
psychological, daring thriller from Ursula Meier.
Young Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) has procured a season pass to a winter ski lodge. Each day, he rides up the giant lifts to the top of the mountain, where he swipes skis, poles, boots, gloves, and other paraphernalia, selling them to the less-fortunate in the town below. He does this to support he and his sister Louise (Lea Seydoux), an unfocused, somewhat-selfish wanderer who appears too have little concern for the well being of herself or for Simon, flitting from job to job and from lover to lover like a forlorn mosquito. So it's entirely up to Simon to keep them afloat, and he's a quick learner. Even at age 12, he can cook and clean and knows ski equipment better than even expert skiers, even though he is no skier himself. He's an entrepreneur, albeit in a dangerous career.
He sells to workers. He sells to kids. He takes advance orders and knows how much to charge. He's not intimidated by anyone. He is, at his tender age, a master thief, knowing where to stow his ill-gotten gains and how best to get them back down the mountain. One can argue that he does what he has to do, since his youth prevents him from getting an authentic job and the adult in the family is wildly undependable. He takes on an apprentice at one point, goes into cahoots with another at a different juncture. But a few of his schemes do not end favorably for him.
Simon is friendless, utterly alone. But his relationship with Louise is quite complicated. There are tender touches. Inappropriate remarks. Lingering glances. Is this simply typical preteen behavior, or something more? With no other friends - and apparently, no school to serve as a social function - Louise is about the only female with whom he interacts on a regular basis.
He meets a visiting family - mom, two boys - at the resort. Mom is kind and buys Simon breakfast, even though he is loaded with cash. They bond a little; she seeing perhaps a lost soul whose story of no parents or siblings isn't ringing true, he seeing a mother figure he desperately desires.
The twist in the movie makes its appearance just about halfway through. It's surprising that it arrives so early, and when it does it passes two crucial tests: it is both out of the blue and completely plausible. The perfect twist.
Obviously, the twist coming so early in the film means that the movie's real enticement comes in this major revelation - well, a revelation to the audience, not to the characters. At first, we're not sure who is telling the truth; are we being snookered? When we discover the answer to that question, the relationship between Louise and Simon takes on a whole new dimension.
Both Klein and Seydoux, playing characters who are almost aggressively opposite from one another, are phenomenal. Simon longs for a better life even as he excels in his current role. Louise, a tragic heroine, is mentally scarred, unsure, unhappy, and besieged by doubt. She seems of no use to him, and yet he pushes hard to make a life for them both.
The ending is one of those that will leave half of the audience wondering if a reel was left off by mistake and the other half nodding appreciatively. It is not a neat ending; it is awash with symbolism of the direction each lead's life is headed. And set against the majestic beauty of the mountains, it is a strong, stark, and beautiful finale.
For scrawny 12-year-old Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein), life is up and
down. Going up, however, does not mean moving up the ladder of success
but only riding a cable car to do his "work" at the top of a mountain
ski resort, a playground for wealthy tourists. Ursula Meier's
heartbreaking Sister, Switzerland's submission for Best Foreign Film at
this year's Oscars, is built around the continual movement of the cable
car, moving up to the white wonderland of the glittering slopes, and
down to the crumbling housing projects that look out on a desolate and
muddy industrial plain. Like the marginalized poor in America, Simon is
an unnoticed presence.
He is a crafty entrepreneur whose work consists of stealing skis, gloves, goggles, sneaking in and out of locker rooms, emptying coat pockets and grabbing sandwiches and anything else he can from knapsacks to bring home to his older sister Louise (Lea Seydoux), a lay about in her early twenties who cannot hold a steady job and goes from one boyfriend to another. For Simon, a sled is not a fun ride in the snow but a means to stay alive, a tool to strap stolen skis and drag them down below to restore and repair so he can sell them to the highest bidder. Simon, of course, rationalizes his actions by saying "They don't miss them. They just go and buy new ones." Supported by a solid script by the director and Antoine Jacquod and the striking cinematography of Agnés Godard (Beau Travail, The Dreamlife of Angels), Sister takes place during the ski season from Christmas to Easter, as the camera peeks behind the glamour. When Simon is caught in the act of stealing by seasonal worker, Mike (Martin Compston), a friendly Scot, Mike automatically assumes that he's stealing to buy more hi-tech gadgets. Taken aback when he learns that the boy is stealing to buy food, toilet paper, and other necessities to keep him and his sister alive, he joins with him in his questionable activities.
The early sequences have a bounce and energy that makes it feel as if the film may be moving in a comic direction, but comic it is not. This becomes very apparent in the film's second half when another (somewhat strained) dimension is added to our knowledge of Simon's love-hate bond with his sister, and we watch helplessly as their interaction changes from playful to a no holds barred display of anger and frustration. While some may see Simon as a criminal in training, Klein makes him lovable enough for us to view him as a confused little boy, desperate for affection, at times acting like an adult and at times a forlorn child. We know instinctively, however, that unless there is some sort of intervention, the path Simon is on will lead to a dead end.
Unfortunately, however, there are no parents (foster or otherwise), no social workers, no schools or teachers in sight, not even police around to put up a stop sign. People walk by him as they pass by the homeless every day in the streets of most big cities, looking away, thinking "how sad." Nominated for Most Promising Actor at the 2013 César Awards, Kacey Klein's natural performance is one of remarkable depth and understanding. He does not emote or think the role, he lives in it and we are drawn into his life and experience his loneliness as our own. Also remarkable is Lea Seydoux who brings the irresponsible but ultimately sympathetic Louise to life.
Based on Meier's memories of growing up near a ski resort near Geneva, Switzerland and her recollection of a little boy who was known as a thief, Sister is a devastating look at the result when an unwanted child is brought into the world. We discover how truly alone Simon is in scenes where he has to pay Louise to give him a hug, and when his neediness pushes him to cling to the mother of two boys (Gillian Anderson) who buys him lunch at the resort. If, as Victor Hugo said, "Life's greatest happiness is to be convinced we are loved," Meier makes it evident that growing up in a world without love, even the most skillful and resilient child cannot fill the gaping hole it leaves.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I saw this film in the Berlinale film festival 2012, where it was part
of the Competition section. It tells about an intriguing situation with
a brother and a sister living together. Both have very uncommon ways to
pass the time, each having their own survival strategy. We are left in
the dark for a long time how all that came about.
I especially admire the role of 12-year old Simon, who shows versatility, skills and experience in his daily "job" of stealing ski's and related material from well-to-do tourists in the ski resort, in order to re-sell it later on to less wealthy people in the village. He acts as a real professional, and knows everything there is to know about equipment brands and related market prices.
The "sister" role, on the other hand, gets a bit on my nerves. She is utterly useless in earning a living, nor is she capable of running an orderly household. She's easily distracted when a man (any man) is around, and often leaving in the company of a lover, each time a different one. I'm not completely sure how to characterize her way of living together with Simon as either symbiotic or parasitic.
Halfway the movie it turns out that the relationship between Simon and his "sister" is completely different from what he tells everyone (and us) asking about their parents. What we (and everyone) are led to believe all the time, is the explanation that is easiest accepted by everyone asking for details. Their behavior does not change after the revelation about their true relationship. But of course it changes our view on the situation drastically from that moment on.
The film ends when the skiing season is nearly over, and all tourists are about to leave. Unclear remains what their income will be as of this day. We see them in a ski lift: Simon is going up and she is going down. Does this mean anything? A pointer? Seems like a deliberate open ending, and I must admit that I cannot think of a better way to wrap up this story.
All in all, Simon is the real main character, and he certainly is a person to get involved in. We follow him closely on his "job", feel with the risky situations he finds himself in, just as we are happy with each of his narrow escapes. Though the "sister" keeps annoying me all the time, she is the second main character who is also very well portrayed. Though we see many other characters appear, all of them are mere side roles. Nevertheless, they are also performing very well in their assigned roles.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
'Sister' is the Swiss entry for both the Academy and Spirit Award
nomination in the best foreign language film category. It's a very
well-acted, bleak portrait of the relationship between a 12/13 year old
boy, Simon, and his older caretaker, Louise, played by Léa Seydoux.
HUGE SPOILERS AHEAD. For a good part of the film, we're led to believe that Louise, is Simon's older sister, after Simon claims that their parents were killed in a car accident. Eventually, however, it's revealed that Louise is actually the child's mother.
Most of the plot takes place at a Swiss ski resort, where Simon mainly pilfers expensive skis and ski accessories from well-off, unsuspecting tourists and supports himself and his mother, by selling the items (principally to employees at the resort). Along the way, Simon befriends a British resort employee who helps him sell some of the stolen merchandise. On one occasion, a tourist catches Simon stealing from him and the child suffers a beating, resulting in a bloody nose and bruises on his body (do you really believe, no one at the resort would have called the police on their cell phone, when they saw an adult attack a young child?).
Louise makes it clear to Simon that she never wanted him and refuses to hardly parent him at all. The unloved boy is so desperate for affection that he offers her money, if she'll just cuddle him in bed. Meanwhile, Louise refuses to support the two, and for most of the film, selfishly takes money from the boy to support herself. She also seeks out abusive boyfriends, ignores the effect those relationships have on Simon and often leaves the child to his own devices.
It becomes rather clear that Simon's criminality is tied directly to Louise's neglect and extremely poor parenting. You'll have to suspend your disbelief quite a bit to believe that there are people as extreme as Louise. In real life, wouldn't a narcissist like Louise, simply make sure Simon goes to school, to keep him out of her hair? And if he ends up as a truant, the authorities would have no problem shipping him off to reform school. Yes I know she's supposed to be out of it, but it just seems a little too convenient, that no ever reports her and little Simon gets away with his pint size theft routine, for so long.
And also what exactly is director Usrula Meier's overall point? That without love, kids can end up with some really bad problems? Even before Simon poaches the watch, causing Louise to lose her job, we pretty much realize that Simon's downward spiral will not reverse course (in other words, we GET the point that this indeed, is a TRAGIC situation, way before the denouement). Yes, it's clever and dramatic to show the two going in opposite directions on the cable lift at film's end, symbolizing that Simon will not get the help he needs from his mother, but how about letting reality intrude into the story for a minute? The appropriate ending would be for some social workers to intervene and place the child in foster care or some kind of institutional setting. But this film is more about hitting us over the head about the 'tragedy' of this grim relationship, instead of establishing a proper verisimilitude.
'Sister's weak point is the rather one-note, simplistic portrait of the mother from hell. Are there people like that in real life? Maybe. But usually there's some kind of motive (is she a drug addict? Prostitute?)--it's all so sketchy. Why not find out a little bit more about her? Or is she so one-dimensional, that there's nothing more to learn?
What keeps us interested is how far Simon will sink into the morass of criminality. In that respect, Meier is more successful in fascinating us as voyeurs in a crime drama, than the more unexplained and obvious dissection of a broken relationship between mother and child.
This movie is surely more than worth to be seen: I've been so impressed
that I kept thinking for days about the characters and their fate and
wishing them my best.
So, as you have probably understood the film is touching, let's say moving. Can't say if it is more the rare beauty of Louise or the remarkable talent of Simon for getting by that will affect you the most but be sure that you'll feel involved in the story as if you'd be part of it.
Needless to say that the acting is perfect, the scenes are catching and the dialogue most natural. I wonder whether is it a true story or not. I hope it is, otherwise I'd have to think that there is some kind of sadism in Ursula Meier's imagination.
French-Swiss screenwriter, actress and director Ursula Meier's second
feature film which she co-wrote with Swiss sociologist, author and
screenwriter Antoine Jaccoud and French author and screenwriter Gilles
Taurand, is inspired by an idea from the director. It premiered In
competition at the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival in 2012, was
shot on location in Switzerland and is a France-Switzerland
co-production which was produced by producers Denys Freyd and Ruth
Waldburger. It tells the story about a 12-year-old boy named Simon who
lives in an apartment block in an industrial area nearby a ski resort
in Switzerland with his older sister named Louise. As his sister spends
most of her time with her various boyfriends, Simon innately thinks
that it's his responsibility to support them so he frequently finds his
way to the ski resort up in the mountains where he steals equipment and
sells it to the tourists.
Distinctly and precisely directed by French-Swiss filmmaker Ursula Meier, this quietly paced fictional tale which is narrated mostly from the two main characters' viewpoints, draws a humane and heart-wrenching portrayal of a somewhat uncommon relationship between two siblings. While notable for its naturalistic and surreal milieu depictions, fine cinematography by cinematographer Agnès Godard, costume design by costume designer Anna Van Brée and excellent choice of location, this character-driven story about a boy who meets and Englishman and who breaks moral rules in desperation, for the sake of achieving affection from the person he cares the most for and to make that person happy, depicts two interrelated and heartrending studies of character where two human beings who are marred by their backgrounds does what their hearts and minds tells them to do and contains an efficient score by composer John Parish.
This conversational, political, at times humorous, non-moralizing and tangible though imaginary psychological drama about interpersonal relations, communication and human conditions which is set in the Swiss Alps during a skiing season and where a child who keeps on going up to a place where people are living a lifestyle that is far away from his and keeps on coming back down to his reality where things are not quite as sunny, has taken on the role as provider due to the situation he and the only person he has is in, is impelled and reinforced by its cogent narrative structure, subtle continuity, good dialog, emotional substance and the prominent and commendable acting performances by child actor Kacey Mottet Klein and French actress Léa Seydoux. An atmospheric, somewhat sociological and affective love-story which gained, among numerous other awards, a Silver Bear Special Award at the 62nd Berlin Film Festival in 2012.
Some films just can't be improved, this is one of this rare class. Like
Lorna's Silence and of course the Dardenne bros, we've got the
sociological view of the poor and alone among the rich and powerful.
This alone is better than most of what is filmed, but what makes this
gem stand from the crowd? The story is powerful, never faltering, and
yet without low blows. And with the classic "slow/ ethnographic"
moments that have make "French film" famous or infamous, according to
Simon steals the movie, and that's no small feat given the other main character is Léa Seydoux, probably too pretty for the role, but so well "dressed" and such a good actress that you almost never see in her the "Cannes Star" one is expecting, only a beautiful woman who happens to be poor and with an awful taste for men.
"Mike", "Christin" (the classy blonde) and J. F. Stévenin's baddie teach us in one lesson that whoever's got money or power, even if just a bit more than you, will probably humiliate you as soon as he/ she can.
This is a film probably only understandable for those of us who've been thou hard times, economically as well as socially (notice Louise and Simon have no friends, S. may have one client and then an unlikely sidekick, and Louise has her "men" but they have no social life, no "life" beyond "pasta and toilet paper" as Simon wryly says to Mike as to what he does with the $ he gets from his thefts.
Simon has some points in common with Truffaut's 400 blows, as Argentine critic Diego Battle aptly writes. He's so chillingly natural that we only hope he can be as good as J.-P. Léaud, or even better!
Léa, from "La vie d'Adéle" (Palme d'or at Cannes 2013') has a feline beauty as well as some "hidden anger" that suits our character perfectly. I never understood how she spends her money so quickly, as we may understand she gets money from hustling, also from Simon, and yet she's always broke.
Agnès Godard makes magic with the greyish-white Alpine settings, always showing how harsh weather may be warm compared with the people down there. You may not be eager to go to skiing after having watched this masterpiece!
John Parish's music is hypnotic and costume design are perfect. Everything in their house is ugly, like poor Simon's tacky bed sheets. (This reminds me of Lorna's silence, whose winter clothing always looked bad on her, herself a beautiful woman). Even when they but something brand new, it doesn't work as supposed, like the oven Simon wanted. Everything that enter the house sort of gets "soiled". They are always washing clothes.
The ending's got a clear symbolism, I owe this to IMDb reviewer Dan Frazen. My favourite scene is Simon and his young apprentice stealing kid's wallets, leaving aside the toys with cool efficiency, complaining when "they only have coins" and flushing all what they don't want down the toilet.
I'm eager to watch Ursula Meier's debut, "Home". I am sure she'll keep up the greatness.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Ursula Meier's "Sister" is not an easy film. A boy, Simon, survives in
the fringe of a mountain and of society-, stealing from the visitors
of a skiing resort. His only companion, quite unreliable, is an older
sister, Louise, whose ups and downs force Simon to act way above is
age. We don't know anything about how they ended up in this situation,
though at midpoint of the film we'll learn the truth of their
relationship. The background and the weather are as cold and unpleasant
as the relationships portrayed, while the deadpan style of the film
makes not a single concession to sentimentalism. Under these premises,
Meier has built a forthright movie full of subtleties: not an easy
film, but utterly rewarding.
Other reviewers here have already pointed out the duality of this high/low setting, brilliantly used by Meier. It mirrors the class distinction, of course, and their respective environments: the white, unspoiled snow on top of the mountain for those with money, against the melted mud on the hillside where the underprivileged survive. Simon, however, doesn't look for the wealth of the mountaintop. Surely, he strives for an improvement in his life, but his stealing is merely practical he needs to buy food, toilet paper-. No, what Simon yearns for is tenderness, for a caring mother, for a life in which (the lack of) money doesn't spoil relationships. Downtown, Simon has to be on permanent watch out; up in the resort, he can still pretend to be a kid.
This fight against loneliness drives both siblings. What Louise cannot find in Simon, she looks for in random boyfriends. What Simon cannot get from Louise, he tries to get from a woman he stalks at the resort. However, those relationships are built upon lies that hurt each other, driving them further apart.
Needless to say, Simon won't fare well; eventually, his pretense falls when the woman he wants as a mother finds him cleaning her cabin: Simon can't any longer hope to be her son if he is just a chalet bellboy. To make things worst, he's caught stealing the woman's wristwatch. Was his stealing a betrayal, a payback for her rejection? Or was he taking a souvenir, a keepsake of the mother he lacks? It comes to my mind a little essay by Jean Genet, "L'Enfant criminel" where the author points out the symbolic value of the crime's object in the mind of the young criminal. It is not surprising, therefore, that the watch he has stolen is found on his crotch. Still following Genet, what turns someone into a thief is not the act of stealing, but the word "thief" directed at him. The word, the injury, is what creates the separation from society, a separation that will lead to the development of a criminal moral and the eventual transformation into a thief. Simon struggles to elude this process, while at the same time is doomed to it.
At the end of the film Simon returns downtown, accepting the place where he belongs. There's no other possible direction for him: once that the snow melts at the resort, there's no tenderness to be found there. Probably, as one character says, Simon will steal bikes through the summer. Nothing has really changed for him; he'll keep surviving at the margins of society. But, in this hopeless ending, there's the hopeful note too. Simon is going down, yes, hanging inside a cable car, when he crosses another cable car that goes up. His "sister", obviously worried, calls for him. These siblings, after all, do care for each other, and that's something that the lack of money cannot change. They are not alone.
Glad to see so many positive reviews of this one. It's a fascinating, powerful film about two young peoplea potty-mouthed artful dodger and a soft-faced older girl he calls "frangine" ("sis")trying to live by their wits at a Swiss ski resort. Léa Seydoux's sulky beauty makes her perfect for the role of Louise; Kacey Mottet Klein, then barely into his teens, gives an amazing performance as Simon. Didn't recognize Gillian Anderson as the Englishwoman who takes a motherly interest. The slangy (not to say skanky) dialogue may be useful to students of advanced conversational French. Ursula Meier's first feature, "Home," is a total headtrip, longer on concept than plot and reminiscent of 50s absurdist satires of modern life by Ionesco and Jacques Tati; this one has real visceral impact. Both "Sister" and "Home" are available on streaming Netflix.
Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) is a thief stealing from the foreigners at
the ski resort. He lives with his aimless irresponsible sister Louise
(Léa Seydoux). She's left yet another job and has questionable
relationships. He gets caught by resort worker Mike (Martin Compston)
but instead he starts selling the stolen skis to him. He takes bigger
and bigger risks. He's an expert liar. He befriends resort patron
Kristin Jansen (Gillian Anderson) pretending to be a rich kid.
It's a pretty good performance from Kacey of a ballsy character. It does need to amp up the danger for the boy. While the reveal is great, it doesn't really raise the danger. Maybe if they could add a thug looking for money or children services looking to take Simon away. Also it would be great to dig deeper into Louise's problems. Overall this is a little bit disturbing but needs to raise the tension much higher.
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