High and low: life as a hustle
Ursula Meier is a new Swiss director who rejects the glamorous picture of her country as a place of heroic mountain climbers and perfectly functioning watches and rock solid banks. In her world, nothing is particularly certain. In her debut feature, ironically called Home, a family (headed by Isabelle Huppert and Olivier Gourmet) live along an unfinished highway and must make extraordinary accomodations when it’s built. In her strong and absorbing second film, Sister, or L’Enfant d’en haut, a skinny blond boy called Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein), who claims to be 15 but is really 12, squats in an anonymous flat located in an ugly industrial plain with his shapely older sister Louise (Léa Seydoux). They have a roof over their heads, but their lives are catch-as-catch can. Her boyfriends last no longer then her odd jobs. Simon is more the breadwinner, because he has skills. He knows a lot about skis and ski equipment. Saving up enough cash for a pass to get there, he can weave his way among rich alpine ski vacationers up above on the snow-covered mountains and pass fleetingly as one of them. There, he steals any of their stuff he can get his hands on and cart away, starting with flashy new skies and pricey sunglasses. He sells them to pals or resort workers. With the money he buys such luxuries as pasta, so he and Louise can eat. Nothing finally is stable in their lives, or their relationship either. Or really in the world as we experience it through them. As some said of Home, this may be a prophetic vision with wider implications. But it has a tonic freedom from generalization. Everything is precipitous, kinetic, and compulsively involving. One is dropped into a new world and stays till the last heart-stopping moment, which offers a haunting hint reminiscent of the ending of René Clément’s Forbidden Games.
Meier is well served in young Klein, who was also in Home and has been said to have learned from Olivier Gourmet, during that shoot, how to embody rather than merely enact his role: when he is on screen, which is most of the time, he is totally absorbed in what he is doing and so are we. He’s slippery as an eel, and you’ll certainly never catch him “acting,” a fact that underlines the director’s commitment as well as his. His face is both impassive and expressive. Simon hides his feelings. In one astonishing and appalling scene toward the film’s end, he e literally buys affection. Earlier, he gloms onto a rich, long-haired blond vacationer (Gillian Anderson), to whom he pretends that his parents are super-busy running a “very big hotel.” He wishes she were his mother. He wishes he had one. He grabs her the way Thomas Doret, the orphaned and abandoned boy in the Dardennes’ The Kid with the Bike, grabs Cécile de France and won’t let go. But rejection is something Simon gets a lot of, and from all directions.
L’Enfant d’en haut captures a picaresque life of survival and denied lostness whose specifics we’ve never quite seen before. Like any good film of this kind this one’s spaces and shots stay with you. Simon is always getting dirty or wet and stripping and running his clothes through the washer. Only later you may realize he doesn’t’ have many clothes. Things are always coming and going. There is a row of snappy looking skis along one wall, but soon they’ll be gone. This is almost a world of barter. Simon is a good player of a game he has himself invented. But he hasn’t fully learned the rules of the world’s — the real world’s — games. His affective life is missing and so is a moral compass. Léa Seydoux, who despite her privileged background keeps taking challenging roles, can just almost keep up with the mercurial Klein. She is cold, distant, childish, and helpless here. Klein was also priceless as the young Serge Gainsbourg in the recent biopic — an amazing talent to watch for. A surprising presence is Gillian Anderson who befriends Simon, then turns on him. Scottish actor Martin Compston is good as a food worker who also befriends Simon but turns on him.
The Swiss don’t often come up with a great director but Meier looks like becoming one. Her debut was the Swiss nominee for the 2009 foreign-language Oscar. Sister/L’Enfant d’en haut won the Silver Bear at the Berlinale. Meier has something social and psychological to say, and they’re both related, but when you’re watching the film you are in the moment. Sister, which is in French with some English dialogue, achieves something quite fresh. It debuted at the Berlinale in February, then opened in Paris April 18, 2012. I hope Meier gets the wider international audience she deserves.
Screened for this review at MK2 Hautefeuille, Paris, May 8, 2012. This was the best film I saw in Paris this time and in my book, one of the year’s best. After Berlin L’Enfant d’en haut has shown at other festivals. The UK release date is 26th October.
DIRECTORS: URSUAL MEIER
WRITER: URSULA MEIER
STARS: LEA SEYDOUX, TRACEY MOTTET KLEIN, GILLIAN ANDERSON, MARTIN COMPSTON
RUNTIME: 97 MIN
COUNTRY: FRANCE, SWITZERLAND