Pras On World Films: SISTER

SISTER is an often touching, sometimes funny story about a pair of castaways and the moral awakening that brings them together and shows the director Ms. Ursula Meier under the influence of the Belgian filmmaking brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. (Even “Sister,” the English-language title of the movie, which was originally called “L’Enfant d’en Haut” or “The Child From Above,” evokes Dardenne films like “L’Enfant” and “The Son.”). The Ursula Meier’s French-Swiss co-production Sister, is Switzerland’s official submission for Oscar Best Foreign-Language film consideration.

Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) lives with his older sister (Léa Seydoux) in a housing complex below a luxury Swiss ski resort, where he ekes out a living picking off relaxing resort-goers  from coat pocket to backpack, emptying them of money, gear and food. Every day, he sneaks up on to the slopes and in between these minor raids walks off with expensive skis that have been nonchalantly set aside by their owners  who live up in this high, rarefied atmosphere of wealth.   No one notices him because he looks so innocuous, as tiny and near-invisible as one of the birds pecking at table crumbs, and because he constantly changes his wardrobe with newly pilfered items. Then he sells it to buy food for himself and the jobless Louise (Léa Seydoux), who tells various boyfriends that this kid brother of hers is only staying temporarily. Simon and Louise are bound together by ties of shame, guilt and fear, and Simon’s thieving is a pathetic attempt to buy love; he is a breadwinner of sorts but his stealing is also a kind of compulsion that he cannot understand, still less control.

Simon has his stealing down to a science (until unforeseen circumstances). He knows where and when to find the goods to steal and has a system that lets him transport the booty down to the valley, where he sells his haul to mostly young, returning customers. With his sister drifting in and out of jobs and relationships, twelve-year-old Simon takes on the responsibility of providing for the two of them.  He is able to keep their little family afloat with his small-time hustles and his sister is thankful for the money he brings in. But, when Simon partners with a crooked British seasonal worker, he begins to lose his boundaries, affecting his relationship with his sister and plummeting him into dangerous territory.

Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) and Louise (Léa Seydoux) in Sister.

Louise tolerates the petty crimes, as she’s otherwise focused and soon takes off with Bruno (Yann Tregouet), another loser who has nothing more to offer than a snazzy BMW. It’s Christmas, but Louise has no problem leaving Simon on his own, even as it’s soon revealed that she is actually his mother. Her assurance to him is that he’s still with her even though everyone else wanted her to give him up.

Bruno dumps Louise, the mother and child bond, Simon runs into trouble with resort kitchen helper Mike (Martin Compston) and the chef himself (Jean-François Stevenin), but for vacationers all ends well, if not for the folks below. By then, the snow has melted, and Simon’s season on high is over. Sister offers several reasons why the boy can’t or won’t return to ski-resort robbery next winter. But the movie also quietly suggests that, whatever he does, Simon will always be the boy from down below, boldly impersonating someone born to the heights.

Lea Seydoux plays the titular role of a young woman largely living off the generosity of her younger, petty-thieving brother.

The second feature by director and co-writer Ursula Meier, who grew up in a nearby region of France, Sister is more naturalistic than her feature film debut, Home. But it explores similar themes, including eccentric family dynamics and life on the margins of European society. Simon and Louise embody poverty and unhappiness in the midst of affluence and contentment. Although Louise eventually becomes more central to the story, the focus remains on the character played by Klein (who also had a role in Home). In fact, Louise isn’t mentioned in the film’s original title, L’Enfant d’en haut — “the child from on high.” Winner of a Silver Bear at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival, Sister is most memorable for its performances, especially Lea Seydoux’s who is in an amazing stretch from her previous role as the subdued reader of Farewell, My Queen.

The movie was expertly photographed with handheld camera by Agnes Godard, who shot Home and many of Claire Denis’ films. The crisp editing is by Nelly Quettier, another frequent Denis collaborator. The minimalist synth-and-guitar score was composed and played by John Parish; the voice of his frequent musical partner, P.J. Harvey, enters for the end-credits song.

Directed by Ursula Meier; written by Antoine Jaccoud and Ms. Meier; director of photography, Agnès Godard; edited by Nelly Quettier; music by John Parish; set design by Ivan Niclass; costumes by Anna van Brée; produced by Denis Freyd and Ruth Waldburger; released by Adopt Films. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 37 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Léa Seydoux (Louise), Kacey Mottet Klein (Simon), Martin Compston (Mike), Gillian Anderson (the English Lady), Jean-François Stévenin (the Chef), Yann Trégouët (Bruno), Gabin Lefebvre (Marcus), Dilon Ademi (Dilon) and Magne-Havard Brekke (the Violent Skier).

Pras on World Films: HOME

In Ursula Meier’s stunning theatrical debut HOME (the official Swiss submission for the 2008 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film), a family’s peaceful existence is threatened when a busy highway is opened right next to their isolated property.  When the five members of the central family find their remote domestic paradise invaded by the reopening of the abandoned highway adjacent to their house, they resort to increasingly lunatic measures to block out the noise—it’s but a small step from earplugs to bricking up their house entirely.

HomeMichel (Olivier Gourmet) and his wife Marthe (Isabelle Huppert) are nonconformists who have consciously chosen to live as far away from others as possible. They have a house in the French countryside alongside a highway that has been left uncompleted for ten years. they live in a comfortable small home in the middle of vast fields and next to the highway, which hasn’t been used for 10 years. So much is the road their turf that the story begins with them playing a family game of street hockey on its pavement.Their kids have chosen different ways of adapting to their lifestyle: Judith (Adelaide Leroux) puts on a bikini, turns on loud music, and sunbathes; Marion (Madeleine Budd) does mathematical games to keep herself amused; and Julien (Kacey Mottet Klein) rides his bike on the highway and loves his little pool.

One day, unexpectedly, construction workers appear on the scene and start laying down tar and lines down the center of the highway. Then big trucks arrive to lay down a fresh coating of asphalt, and steel guardrails are installed on each side and down the middle. Workmen wordlessly clear the highway of their hockey sticks, inflatable swimming pool, satellite dish, charcoal grill and so on. On the radio, they hear breathless coverage of the road’s grand opening, and eventually the first car speeds past their house.On the day of its opening, a radio announcer celebrates how much easier this will make life for drivers. So begins the nightmare for this closely bonded family used to privacy and the silence of the natural world.

Home, creepy home.

The opening scenes of Home—a nighttime game of street hockey, a bathing session that turns into a five-way splash fight—establish the anarchic sense of play that defines the interactions of the film’s central family, while the casual nudity on display hints at the vaguely incestuous tensions in this uniquely insular clan. The rest of Ursula Meier’s confident, appealingly bizarre theatrical debut subjects these tensions to the hothouse environment of a self-willed isolation.

The opening of the highway was not a surprise for them. But the heavy, unceasing traffic is a big problem. The two younger kids always ran across the bare pavement to cut through a field for school. Dad parked on the other side. Now even getting to the house is a problem. Marion the smart younger sister (Madeleine Budd) is concerned about carbon dioxide poisoning. Young Julien (Kacey Mottet Klein) can’t safely get to his pals. Judith (Adelaide Leroux) continues to sunbathe in the front yard and gives the finger to honking truck drivers.

Film Still

Marthe is the one most seriously deranged by the noise pollution of trucks and cars whizzing by at all hours of the day and night. She can’t sleep and quickly becomes very irritable. Judith gets angry at the intruders but tries to shut them out with her music. She eventually runs away from home, fed up with this new development. Marion focuses on the problem of pollution and starts worrying about the toxic effect of all the cars and trucks on their bodies. She tries to scare Julien by checking his back for signs of poisoning. Michel purchases insulation for the house and then barricades the place shut with concrete bricks. It works for a while by blocking out the noise but they all suffer from claustrophobia.

Home is written and directed by Ursula Meier, and it is a very clever and creative film with its probes on family solidarity, change, the toxic residues of a car culture, and the physical, psychological and spiritual effects of noise pollution. In an idyllic scene, Marthe, Marion, and Julien escape the din and retreat to the countryside where they spend a quiet afternoon sleeping and sitting under a tree. In another, Michel unsuccessfully tries to drag his family from their home and force them to move. They refuse.

There are two questions never answered in the French film “Home.” How did this family come to live here? And why does the mother fiercely refuse to leave, even after a four-lane freeway opens in her front yard? Both are more satisfactory remaining as questions. Meier effectively communicates the sense of upended privacy, moving easily from the nighttime intrusion of brightly clad construction workers (the eye-straining oranges and yellows of their uniforms registering as a truly alien presence) to the incongruous sight of Isabelle Huppert tending her garden as blurry streaks of traffic zip by.

OriginalUrsula Meier (born 24 June 1971) is a French-Swiss film director who received the Best Director award at the 2008 Festival du Film Francophone d’Angoulême [Angoulême French-Language Film Festival] for her first theatrical feature, Home, which won the 2009 Swiss Film Prize for Bester Spielfilm [Best Film] as well as Bestes Drehbuch [Best Screenplay] (shared with Antoine Jaccoud). It also received France’s César nomination for Meilleur Premier Film [Best First Film] and a Best Film nomination at Argentina’s Mar del Plata Film Festival.

DIR                  Ursula Meier
PROD              Denis Delcampe, Denis Freyd, Thierry Spicher, Elena Tatti
SCR                 Ursula Meier, Alice Winocour, Antoine Jaccoud, Olivier Lorelle
DP                    Agnès Godard
CAST               Isabelle Huppert, Olivier Gourmet, Adélaïde Leroux, Madeleine Budd, Kacey  Mottet Klein
ED                   François Gédigier, Nelly Quettier, Susana Rossberg
PROD DES    Ivan Niclass
SOUND         Étienne Curchod