“Sister” is French-Swiss filmmaker Ursula Meier’s second feature to begin in what seems to be a world away from civilization, set around a shabby apartment that doesn’t quite compare to the cozy hamlet her main characters inhabited in her previous film “Home” to escape the hustle and bustle of urban life before the intrusion of highway construction can interrupt, but nonetheless serves as a nest where a boy named Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) lines the abode with jackets and ski equipment that he pilfers from a resort in the nearby mountains in order to support himself and his older sister Louise (Léa Seydoux). As if heaven and hell were connected by a skilift, Simon traverses the geographic and class divide with relative ease, selling off his bounty to other children who hail from the dusty, decimated roadside plains when he’s not sneaking up to enjoy the cool, crisp air that only the well off can seem to afford. However, as a stream of frequent not-so-gentlemanly callers are there to remind, the one chasm he cannot bridge is the distance between himself and Louise, who would seem to keep him at arm’s length because of their age difference, though that’s only one of many illusions to be shattered during the course of the film.
Like the work of Dardenne brothers optimized for high definition as far as both its aesthetic and emotional implications are concerned, “Sister” continues Meier’s streak of marrying modern concerns with timelessly humane storytelling, a style emphasized by the sharp cinematography of frequent Claire Denis’ lenser Agnès Godard and unaffected performances delivered by her actors. It is also embodied in her collaboration with Klein, a gifted young actor who first appeared in “Home” who carries Meier’s latest film on his slender shoulders, a weight that Meier says was considerably less taxing for the 12-year-old than the heavy skis he would have to carry up and down the mountain as an ambivalent thief. As Meier explains, it wasn’t the first time she’s asked so much of someone around that age, having once taken a job as a supermarket cashier in her teens to make her first film. But after “Sister” was selected as Switzerland’s official entry for this year’s Oscar race for Best Foreign Film, there’s no question the effort in both the short- and long-term has paid off, and with the film’s release stateside, Meier, with the help of a translator, spoke to me about the origins of her latest work and her secret to creating something original in all of her films.
How did you get interested in filmmaking?
I was a very strange child because I saw the world with a very particular point of view. At the beginning of my [education], I had problems with that because when you ask me to describe a table for example [pointing at the table in front of her], I [would] ask, can I see this table from under? Of course not, if we ask to describe a table, it’s from above. So I was very lucky because my sister [was] in Paris [at] the school of art and she did a film and she asked me to act in the film. [It was] my first experience was as an actress, so I began as an actress very young and suddenly I was very interested, not in acting, but what was around the camera — the image, the actors, direction.
I saw film was very important and I began to be very interested in movies. I read Cahiers du Cinema, a lot of books, but I knew if I wanted to do film, I had to make them, so I worked in the summer. I was 15 and I picked up the money and I bought a video camera and I shot a feature film during two summers. It was great because after that film, I said, I want to be a film director. I never [showed] this film because the sound was terrible because it was a [poor] camera, but it was great because I shot it – my friends were in the film, my father and my brother. Everybody was in the film and it was a story of a cashier, a girl who worked in a supermarket and one day, one guy stole something and she didn’t see it. The boss of the supermarket called her in and [told her,] “Look at the video, you don’t see the thief?” And she looked at herself doing the job and suddenly she has the concerns of her life and she escaped. So it was a road movie like “Vagabond” from Agnes Varda, and [when] I saw “Vagabond” after that, I said, “Oh my God, it’s something common between these films.”
After that, I met Alain Tanner, a very famous Swiss director and I explained to him I wanted to make films and then he said, “Okay, do film school,” I did film school in Belgium and after that, I was an assistant on two of his films.
So “Sister” isn’t your first film to involve theft. How did this one come about?
At first, there was the desire to work with this little boy [Kacey Mottet Klein] again because he played in my first film “Home.” He was very young, so we did a lot of work not [necessarily for] the film but with him [generally] because he never acted, so we did very intuitive work with gesture and [dialogue] because with the children usually sometimes are not very natural, like recitation. But we don’t work [to the letter] of the script. We were in a restaurant and I’d say [something like], “Oh your parents said…you said this,” so it was very organic, very experimental. And it was great. Great for me too because he had never acted, so it was very interesting. Just before shooting, we worked on the script of “Home” and suddenly there was a breakthrough, he could say every sentence very naturally. Day after day, he became an actor.
After that, I really wanted to write for him the main character [in “Sister”] to go deeper and farther. That was my first desire, but I hoped to shoot a film at this place in Switzerland because I like it so much. You have this industrial plain and you just have to look up and there is another world with this ski resort, a world [with] very rich people. it’s very simple, this vertical view tells us a lot of things about our contemporary world, about up and down.
I had the desire to do a film here, but long after I started on the script, a memory came back to me. I grew up near Geneva in Switzerland and I’d often go to a ski resort in France, a small one, not in the Alps. I was in a group with a lot of kids, and one day, a ski teacher [directed our attention towards] a little boy who was alone, 12 or 13, and told us, “Look at this little boy, he’s a thief and be careful with your things.” I was very surprised because he didn’t look [much different] than us [and] to ski, it’s expensive and still he stole. My imagination works a lot and I [thought] who is this little boy? Why does he need to be a thief? At last, he was banned from the ski resort. This memory came back [while I was writing] the script, not before – so it was my subconscious working a lot.
You mentioned the social strata reflected in a simple way in “Sister” and your first feature “Home” was about a family who lives in the countryside that is suddenly subjected to the intrusion of the big city via a newly opened highway. Do these reflect certain feelings you have about a divide in the modernized world?
Yes, it’s true that all my characters in “Home” and in “Sister” think that they can live outside of the world with their own law, their own utopia. In “Sister,” there is no police, there is no social worker, they’re already out of the world and in “Home,” the same. They live on like an island and their world is just in front of their window with a car, it’s a symbol of the contemporary world. And at last at the end, they have to go in the world and it’s always the same beginning – you’re right. They are very different. I like the marginal characters in movies, that they don’t look like other people, that they feel out of the world, they feel differently. In “Sister,” they’re very marginal, of course, and at the beginning, this balance…worked.
Typically nowadays when a film depicts someone having a rough childhood, the aesthetic is equally rough, yet this film is very crisp and beautiful in its visual style. Was it a reaction to other films you’ve seen?
I’m lucky because I work with a very good cinematographer [Agnes Godard] and she shot my film “Home” before. I met her in a café and usually you speak one hour when you meet someone technical and we spoke for maybe more than four. We like to be very radical [and ask ourselves] what made this shot and what made this shot? How do we shoot this set? The camera is so important to film — [it projects] what the spectator has to feel, so we worked a lot. We tried to take off from naturalism with this blue color [that tints the frame]. We tried not to do a postcard, but to find very specific approach of this strange world.
For me, a movie is this great thing – we have actors, we have image, we have sound. So that’s enough. But we try not to think about films. We don’t speak about films. We don’t say, “you remember…” We try to have a singular approach for every film.
“Sister” is now open in New York and expands into the West End Cinemas in Washington D.C., the Angelika Mosaic in Fairfax, VA, the Landmark Kendall Square in Cambridge, and Los Angeles at the Sundance Cinemas, the Encino Town Center and the Laemmle Playhouse in Pasadena on October 19th. A full list of dates and theaters can be found here.