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Palm Springs Festival Review: Oscar Shortlisted ‘Sister’ Spins a Bleak, Poignant Fairytale Up and Down the Mountain

Palm Springs Festival Review: Oscar Shortlisted 'Sister' Spins a Bleak, Poignant Fairytale Up and Down the Mountain

Ursula Meier’s “Sister,” Switzerland’s shortlisted Oscar entry, centers on a young woman and boy struggling to live in a drab, unnamed Swiss valley town, while a glittering mountain resort presides above them. The original title of the film, “L’enfant d’en haut” (roughly translating to “The Child from Above”), alludes to the high-low themes of the film, but also suggests something fable-like, even extra-natural.

Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) is a self-employed 12-year-old. During the day he rides a gondola up the mountain, insinuates himself into the posh ski resort at its summit and, when no one is looking, rifles through the wealthy patrons’ goggles, gloves and skis and selects what will recoup a good selling price. His clients range from a prepubescent neighbor to a fleet of burly resort employees. After a day’s work Simon brings his earnings back down the mountain to a lone apartment complex that stands bleakly at its base. He lives with his older sister, twenty-something Louise (Léa Seydoux), who comes and goes from their home with a troubled restlessness; she’ll be gone for days, and then turn up, hair greasy and cheek bruised, stomping out of the vehicle of a faceless male acquaintance. We gather from her fickle presence and from Simon’s profession that she has a hard time holding a job.

“Sister” has been described by Meier as a fairytale, and this description is apt. The story itself has very little wonder to it — its account of poverty and class divide is unromanticized and devoid of magical realism. Nonetheless, visual tropes throughout the film suggest a reality that is not quite ordinary. The mountain separates Simon and Louise from what is arguably their version of a sparkling castle, the resort that glistens with the promise of money and, by extension, security and happiness. Meanwhile, their isolated apartment building (which Simon at one point describes as “a tower, a big tower”) recalls Rapunzel’s elevated prison, where the two siblings languish with little hope of financial escape.

In a key scene, Louise — who vacillates between absentminded affection for Simon and frustrated hostility — decamps in the middle of the night for an epic bender. The next morning she’s found, half-unconscious and having pissed herself, in a dirt field by Simon and a gaggle of the apartment block’s rascally children. Like a crew of unkempt, cherubic woodland fairies, the little boys collectively pick her up and take her home. The complete absence of adults is striking. While Simon briefly forms an awkward, very sad friendship with a middle-aged patrician skier (Gillian Anderson) during his hustling hours at the resort, his home down below the wintry paradise is like Never-Neverland as seen through a dirty windshield. All children, all lost; always winter, never Christmas.

I’ve now seen “Sister” twice, and remain impressed by Meier and cinematographer Agnès Godard’s cinematic use of gondolas. The gondolas are important, visually, as the conveyor belt-like link between the two worlds at the peak and base of the mountain. Something happens inside those suspended cages when Simon rides them — one world gradually recedes and morphs into a new, very different place. An exterior shot of the gondolas lurching out of sight into snowy fog suggests this, as does another remarkable shot tracking the lifts’ warped, dancing shadows on the mountainside below. 

Mottet Klein and Seydoux are strong as Simon and Louise, communicating a messy, troubled bond with unaffected honesty. Their relationship is more confused than first meets the eye, and throws into question the nature of responsibility, self-sufficiency and long-growing resentment. Lacking any suitable parent figures, and as Louise lacks any reliable partner, the young woman and boy navigate a queasily blurred line between being one another’s caregivers and makeshift spouses. It’s an uncomfortable dynamic that at times hinges on manipulation, sexually and morbidly charged impulses, and even — heartbreakingly — money changing hands. Finally, “Sister” is about the strange mutations of family roles, and how those roles grow, corrode, stray and return over time.

Our TOH! interview with Ursula Meier and Kacey Mottet Klein is here.

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