Two faces of modern Europe

in 23rd Ljubljana International Film Festival

by Marko Njegic

Opposites attract Ursula Meier. Her impressive feature debut ”Home” (2008), which starred Isabelle Huppert, set up contrasts between the utopian, tranquil life of a family living by an abandoned highway and the fast-paced “outside” world that is slowly starting to catch up with them. ”Sister” (”L’enfant d’en haut”, 2012), the director’s second film, was awarded the Silver Bear in Berlin, and was also the most accomplished feature in the “Perspective” program at the 23rd Ljubljana International Film Festival. It too relies on opposites, as embodied in the social strata of a small town in the Swiss mountains. Two classes of people are connected by a cable car which seems more like a time machine. Above, at the ski-resort, are the wealthy “Eloi”, while down below, at the bottom of the mountain, are the piteous “Morlock”. The ski resort is an idyllic place of snow and fun for parents, children and amorous couples, brimming with delicious hot chocolate, expensive sunglasses, etc. Even a James Bond character would feel at home here (code: On Her Majesty’s Secret Service). The film’s narration is in absolute symbiosis with the image. Ursula Meier and her excellent director of photography Agnès Godard (”35 rhums”) paint the tourist Mecca in blinding tones. For as far as the eye can see there stretches the dreamy whiteness of thick snow cover. However, behind the heavenly facade there hides a darkness. When the observational camera descends from the mountains, there is much to see – socially disadvantaged people and the poverty they live in, ruined buildings, broken roads, a lack of faith in humanity…

We enter a small apartment and in it, we discover the life of 12 year old Simon (a well-directed Kacey Mottet Klein, who also appeared in ”Home”) and his older sister Louise (once again fabulous Léa Seydoux), protagonists worthy of a film by the Dardenne brothers. Beautiful, but lazy, irresponsible and often tipsy, when bored with the occasional “crappy job” Louise simply leaves without even changing out of her work clothes. She’s more concerned with driving in the fast & furious car of some new boyfriend, whom she brings home without a second thought, to the horror of little Simon who tries to stifle the sounds of their passionate moans by stuffing cigarette ends in his ears. As a result, it is Simon who provides for the small family, and he does so by thieving. Sandwiches, skis, sunglasses…anything he can get his hands on. Hidden under a ski mask and a thick jacket, the resourceful kid steals from the wealthy while pretending to be one of them and sells his spoils to the poor, so that he can ensure his own survival, buy toilet paper, pasta, etc. “It’s not risky. They don’t care up above, they’re so rich they just buy other things”, states the pre-pubescent Robin Hood as he takes his daily ride on the “up & down” cable car. However, a close encounter with one of the rich men Simon robs indicates that his philosophy is not quite correct: he is caught stealing and ends up with bruises.

Two faces of contemporary Europe look at one another in Meier’s film and collide head-on as a result of economic inequalities. On the one side, the wealthy conglomerate of the mountaintop ski resort, represented by the motherly figure of Gillian Anderson (among others); on the other, the “imported” seasonal workers and working class people of the valley. ”L’enfant d’en haut” shows that deprivation exists even in the wealthiest parts of Europe, and that the promise of a “United Europe” is just a vain hope. The poor are destined always to stand at the back and be left behind. Meier’s film, however, puts them front and centre. The vulnerability and frailness of their existence and the lack of protection from the cold world/modern Europe, are accentuated by the filmmaker in scenes showing Simon and Louise in their underwear. Relatively quickly the director unveils their true relationship so as to ignite the emotional engine of a humanistic film, and to make more profound the heartbreaking melodrama and broaden the palette of realistic feelings. Louise is young enough to pass for Simon’s sister, which is the story they tell people, although she is in fact his mother. “You are my cross, for 12 years that is what you have been, I cannot do anything with you”, cries Louise to her unwanted child, only to end up depending on him since she is not mature enough to take hold of the reins of her own life.

The vertical boundary, embodied in the cable car is not, then, only social. It represents the boundary of the adults world to which Simon and Louise do not belong. Sister began with the cable car. With it, it symbolically ends: an unforgettable, perfect shot of “what-goes-up-must-come-down” when the protagonists pass by one another, leaves viewers with various possible interpretations to consider after the screen goes black.

Edited by Alison Frank