Rating: 4/5“Our family is fucked up,” says Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) to the new man his troubled 20-something sister Louise (Léa Seydoux) has brought home. Louise and Simon giggle, sharing a private joke, and the beau with the BMW and barely enough modesty to throw on a towel before straggling out of Louise’s bedroom joins in the laughter, unaware that soon he will discover just how fucked up their family really is.
The followup to Ursula Meier’s well-received Home (2008), Sister focuses primarily on 12-year-old Simon, played deftly by Home co-star Klein. He spends his days stealing ski gear from the rich tourists at the mountain lodge towering over his gray little village, a scheme that is as much about having something to do as it is to pay the bills. The boy is well organized and clever, proud of his ability to blend in with the wealthier folks at the lodge while he swipes their stuff, but both his daily routine and frank isolation speak to a life in stasis, an emotional inertia that neither Simon nor his troubled sister seem to wish to escape.
It’s more likely, however, that they are simply not allowed to. Interspersed throughout Agnès Godard’s languid cinematography of the beautiful Swiss mountains are shots of a gritty, harshly striated society in the same vein as Kurosawa’s High and Low, the wealthy quite literally looking down on the poor people in the slushy gloom beneath them. As Simon explains to those who ask, the people he steals from take no notice of it; they’re so wealthy they can just buy new. There’s little glamour in stealing from people who don’t care, though Simon finds out quickly enough that the middle and working classes to whom he sells these items most definitely do care.
When Mike (Martin Compston), a Scottish immigrant and chef at the lodge, discovers Simon has been stealing skies, he first tosses him about a room to punish him, then joins in on the scheme, fencing some of the stolen goods in between bouts of bitterly scolding Simon. Mike’s hypocritical and seemingly arbitrary complaints make no sense except as a means for him to solidify his social standing. He is merely one of the laborers at the lodge who have cast themselves as morally superior to Simon, benefitting from his thievery while abusing him. The rich are no better, as we see when a tourist beats Simon bloody for stealing a pair of goggles. Simon scammed the tourist by pretending to be one of the rich kids at the lodge, and the subsequent beating seemed more about his attempt to change his social status than for the theft of a pair of unattended goggles.
As his eldest sister and only relative Louise remains absent, Simon spends more time at the lodge, stumbling upon a mother figure to gaze upon in the form of British tourist Kristin (Gillian Anderson). Beautiful and friendly, Simon is immediately attracted. He pretends to share the same name as one of her sons to ingratiate himself with her, but when he reveals his complete lack of socialization by trying to pay for her family’s meal, Kristin’s looks of amusement turn to disgust; Simon has once again attempted to step across social bounds, and must be put in his place.
Simon is a complicated kid, both sympathetic and unappealing, overconfident and strutting around like Steve McQueen at times, hopping about in his underwear and clucking like a chicken at others. Meier does not make it easy to automatically sympathize with the boy, wisely refusing to cast him as a poor-but-noble orphan. Some of Simon’s behavior is merely the usual silliness of a 12-year-old boy; more often, though, they are the actions of a child so thoroughly excluded from society that he has never had the opportunity to learn social conventions. This is made worse as he rebels against the middle and upper classes attempting to control him through threats, punishment, shame and humiliation. They constantly attempt, and usually succeed, in keeping Simon down, which very likely explains why his sister Louise no longer even tries anymore, settling instead on attracting a series of useless and abusive boyfriends, hoping to find one that will stick.
A family secret revealed to one of those boyfriends signals a change in Louise’s relationship to her brother and a renewed effort by both to become part of a society that has, until now, had no use for them. But society has already defined the pair entirely by the choices they have made, and the results of those choices are much harsher for them than they would have been for someone of a higher social class. Morals in Sister are the domain of the rich who cast themselves as both the arbiters and enforcers, though the middle and working classes uphold the same mores while they struggle to keep their own precarious place in society. Simon and Louise often break these rules because of loneliness and desperation and abject poverty, and at their young ages already have learned that the cruel consequences of society’s disapproval can last a lifetime and span generations.