BFI London Film Festival 2012: ‘L’enfant d’en haut (Sister)’

L’enfant d’en haut

Directed by Ursula Meier

Written by Antoine Jaccoud & Ursula Meier

Starring Kacey Mottet Klien, Lea Seydoux, Gillian Anderson

Channeling the social anxieties of the Dardenne Brothers with a nod to the political posturing of ultra-realist Ken Loach, Ursula Meier’s second feature is a distanced, distracting fable on the modern family structure. Like her 2008 debut Home the simply titled Sister is another puzzling tale which is bruisingly ascetic in tone,  an emotional neutered piece which slowly builds an arresting snapshot of lives in a codified and fragmented, unsecured and uncertain free-fall.

The impish twelve year old Simon (Klien) lives with his sister in a decrepit council block at the foot of a popular ski resort in the Swiss alps. With no adult parents in sight and bereft of cash Simon spends his days  as a mirror of some modern day Dickensian figure of Alpine descent, pilfering the tourists jackets, coats and backpacks for food and cash, selling on the more affluent skiing gear to the local street level hucksters in an almost gentile, agreeable black market. His older sister Louise is an abrasive sort, working at menial service level jobs until her fiery demeanor gets her fired and she is forced onto the next short term contract, she spends her evening with local men of a loose and easy virtue and it is vaguely suggested that she may be hooking on the side. Incrementally the siblings back-story and predicament is drawn together and emotionally exposed, as their unsustainable predicament draws to an inevitable conclusion.

Following the usual vérité conventions – naturalistic performances, a sparsly obtuse soundtrack, an emphasis on social conditions and economic  – Sister is a fine if rather chilly observation of the lives of people who operate at the margins of society. The drip feed of the drama slowly uncovering the history of Simon and Louise’s predicament  is dexterously handled with empathic revelations being buried deep into the films fiscally appropriate run-time, with a focus on the players internal lives and muddied history providing the requisite interest as a overlooked underclass strives for survival in a economically partitioned estate.

The central urchins unassuming performance makes one understand if not entirely sympathise with his thieving ways, and his desire for warmth in a functioning family context is discreetly revealed through an acquaintance desperately made with a English tourist and her two kids, played with an affable realism by Gillian Anderson. The chilly alpine locale and clear situational metaphor of the haves and have-nots is expressed through geographical establishing visions, counterpoising the rambling hand to mouth existence of societies overlooked and forgotten with an aloof, alienated middle class at play. With a complex central relationship and faintly mystifying, unresolved ending Sister is a rewarding and mysterious entry to this years London Film Festival.

-John McEntee

The BFI London Film Festival runs Oct. 10th – 21st. Learn more about L’enfant d’en haut.

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