In Ursula Meier’s raucous 2008 debut, Home, a family living in happy isolation next to an abandoned highway goes nutty when the highway re-opens, eventually barricading themselves in from the noisy swarm of heavy transit. Meier’s skill in that film was in defining how each family member owned their vices, and how the invasion of space made them increasingly impossible to pursue. Her new film, however, subverts these family dynamics by abandoning them and stages an inversion of that filmic space: it takes place in a vast, seemingly endless landscape of snow, merely marked by human industry, with light and darkness given an uneasy balance. Daily life, it seems, would be a choice between unbearably luminous exteriors and unflatteringly murky rooms. Yet legendary cinematographer Agnès Godard — working in digital for the first time — eerily uses deep focus to compound a world that continues to move without siblings Louise (Léa Seydoux) and Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein). The valley swings around them in the evening as they walk towards the towering project they call home. If they don’t own the Swiss Alps, then who does? When authority and paterfamilias are hidden from view, it’s no wonder that the film is bookended by images of both lead characters pissing outdoors.
This environmental abstraction is the most striking thing about Sister, a visually compelling film that never truly transcends its tropes of social realism. The English title blunts the poetry of the French original: L’enfant d’en haut, “the child from above,” would seem a better fit, both as a literal embodiment of the home that street-smart Simon and his slacker sister live in and as a metaphor for the boy’s preternatural pilfering. Like a child protagonist in a Dardennes film, Simon’s unflagging resolve in his immediate world casts a spell: as the family breadwinner, he rides the lift over a steep valley each day to a nearby ski resort and steals valuables from (mostly invisible) bougies. He sells these items to kids his own age, to the men who work across the valley, and to those passing through his sister’s bedroom. (When he enters a men’s locker room, packed with grumbling workers surveying his loot, Godard’s frame aims to stifle — and succeeds.)
A sexless wanderer, much like his character in Home, Simon scrambles for survival while developing an inner need for acceptance. Inevitably, he is caught and shamed in public, but it’s clear that Meier never aims to punish. Instead she spends the film admiring the boy’s resolve despite his being rejected from all sides. Even Gillian Anderson, almost too perfect as an affluent single mother, observes him with a guarded gesture. All of this points to one question: where the hell are these kids’ parents? Meier mysteriously withholds this information until a major revelation by Simon halfway through the film that makes clear just how much these characters depend on each other, injecting the film with a severe intimacy it never quite regains.
Both of Meier’s films are stories of people living on the border between strata of society who will never fit into a more “civilized” life that they, ultimately, are denying themselves. When Meier ends her film on an ominous note, her characters literally suspended between two points, it’s moment of urgency sorely missing in the rest of the film. But if the themes and plot mechanics of Sister will seem familiar to an audience steeped in modern European cinema, it nevertheless feels crafted with deep love and restraint. Meier’s quiet observance of her characters conveys a deep respect, as well as a weary transience: Simon and Louise have lived this way, and they will go on to live this way after winter’s end.