We meet Simon, the diminutive lead character of L’Enfant d’en Haut, in the lockers of a fancy Swiss ski resort, rifling through backpacks and jackets. He has done this many times before; he seems to know exactly which types of bags to go for, and the layout of the building. He empties various guests’ cases of their skis, helmets, gloves and other recreational accoutrements—but then, tellingly, he swipes sandwiches and thermoses as well. He stops to have lunch in a tiny bathroom stall. A knock on the door is deflected with a simple “I’m having a dump, sir.”
Simon, played by the charismatic newcomer Kacey Mottet Klein, steals most of these items to sell at a discount to the employees of the resort. They must be aware that these are all stolen goods, but, hey, a deal’s a deal. His English is imperfect, but he’s picked up enough to smooth-talk his way to closing a deal. Holding up a pair of generic-looking sunglasses, he says, “Sir, I recommend this model for 100% UV-blocking.” The boy knows exactly how to maintain his product, too; there is a scene of him ironing off the imperfections from a set of skis, increasing their resale value. Smart kid.
I was reminded of the children in Hector Babenco’s emotionally wrenching Pixote. Bumming around on the streets, survival always in question, at the mercy of sadistic and uncaring adults. The difference here is that the director, Ursula Meier, has crafted a kind of first-world version of Babenco’s masterpiece. Babenco’s diminutive street urchin never had the opportunities Simon enjoys—which may be an odd thing to say considering that Simon’s entire business model is simply stealing and selling. But Simon has access to much finer product, and has already been given several important lessons in the lives of the lower-class in an oppressively capitalist country.
All this is made more depressing by the fact that Simon actually has an adult in his life—his older sister, Louise. Louise seems to be supported completely by Simon, which is a bit strange, considering she is always leaving with strange men and coming back to their tiny apartment in the middle of the night. It is obvious by the look on his face that Simon adores his sister, and sees nothing particularly strange or upsetting about their lifestyle.
Maybe that last bit isn’t quite true. Simon stumbles upon an English family vacationing at the resort. The mother—played by, believe it or not, Gillian Anderson—asks him why he is skiing all alone. “My parents own a hotel. They are too busy for me.” The woman accepts this without thinking too much about it, but here is the only place the audience senses he may experience some embarrassment, however slight, about his station in life.
(Quick Gillian Anderson tangent here. I liked her in The X-Files during its 1990s run, but must admit I paid her very little notice otherwise. This film is proof that as she ages, she gains both beauty and screen presence in exponential measure. Casting directors: make sure this woman gets more work, please. End tangent.)
Louise is much harder to read. She seems very protective of her brother at some moments, but then leaves him on his own to spend time with random men. She enjoys his company, but sometimes seems downright resentful of him. Not resentful of his income-generating abilities, per se, but more in a general sort of way.
She can also be downright cruel. In one rather wrenching scene, Simon wakes in the middle of the night, after he and Louise have had an awful, corrosive fight. “Can I sleep with you?” he asks.
“You can’t, that’s all.”
“And if I pay you 100?” he says pitifully. “150.” He starts putting money in front of her. “Wait. I have a little bit more.” Simon has already learned that the only thing that makes you valuable in the first world is money. Sure, a wad of francs can buy you toilet paper, bread, pasta—but it can also buy you some of the things that poets insist money cannot buy.
“200,” Louise says, dispassionately. She puts the money on her bedside table.
L’Enfant d’en Haut is Switzerland’s entry into the 85th Academy Awards. It’s an attractive choice; Ursula Meier nimbly contrasts both brother and sister’s personal brands of immaturity and naïveté, the performances from all the actors are earnest and authentic, and you never feel anything less that complete empathy and compassion for poor Simon. But… well, it’s almost a spoiler just to mention that there’s a plot twist in the movie, but there is one indeed, and it was a bit ham-handed to my taste. The distributors are releasing L’Enfant d’en Haut as Sister in English-speaking countries, a fact I urge you to ignore completely. The original title is more poetic and thematically appropriate. The English title… Well, let’s just say that you may roll your eyes about three reels in, and if you do, you’ll know exactly why the film has a minus after its letter grade, and that title doesn’t help.
Bottom Line: Switzerland’s latest Best Foreign Film Oscar entry, Sister provides a realistic, sometimes devastating window into the life of a pair of have-nots in modern Switzerland.
For more information about this year’s foreign film submissions, be sure to check out Film Misery’s detailed webpage.