Director Ursula Meier can hardly believe that her film "Sister" — which depicts tenements, poverty and a seemingly rigid class system in lovely Switzerland — has made it over the Alps to Hollywood for Academy consideration.
“It shows a not-very-usual aspect of Switzerland,” Meier told the audience at a showing of "Sister" Thursday night at the Landmark, part of TheWrap's Academy Screening Series. "We don’t show the beautiful mountains and the green and the lush life … For me it was important to show another point of view on this country to the world. Because usually it’s Montblanc, chocolate, and Swatch.”
Indeed, with her second film, Meier has given international audiences something else to associate with Switzerland: larcenous snow urchins.
“Sister” centers mostly around 12-year-old Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein), who lives in a high-rise tenement in a not-so-snowy valley far below a ski resort and takes gondolas to the top to steal wealthy tourists’ skis right out from under their goggles.
Wily Simon is financing not just his own existence but that of Louise (Lea Seydoux), the title character, who just might be the worst parental figure or caretaker in a cinematic year that did, after all, include “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
It would involve spoilers to explain why Simon’s older sis is not everything she’s cracked up to be. But there’s nothing misleading about this boy-crazy, substance-abusing twentysomething gal’s unfitness to watch over Simon, the breadwinner of their sad two-person family.
He has to empty out his cash drawer to bribe Louise into snuggling with him, and when he entrusts her with the mere task of waxing skis, she can’t even do that without spilling cigarette ashes on the stolen merchandise.
Meier discovered the locations for “Sister” while shooting a TV movie some years back, and the setting inspired her to write a tale of economic contrasts. Gondolas are the only bridge between worlds in this class-conscious film.
“You just have to look up to follow the smoke of the factory, and there is a very rich world up above,” she told the evening's moderator, Wrap Awards Editor Steve Pond. “People from around the world ski there and never go down, and you have people who live just 10 minutes from the ski resort and never go up because they don’t have the money. It’s not their world. So I was very fascinated by the simplicity of this verticality … It may tell us something about our world today.”
There are mountains in “Sister,” of course, seen either from a distance or scaled for the purposes of petty theft. But Meier shied away from showing much in the way of vistas.
Pond asked the director why “there aren’t a lot of postcard views in the film.”
“I shoot in one of the most beautiful places in the world,” Meier said, chuckling at the efforts she had to make to keep that gorgeousness just out of the frame. “It was important for me, when we were at the ski resort, to [spend a good deal of time] showing the back door of the restaurant, and the workers inside … And it’s just at the end, when it’s finished, when there is no more snow and the ski resort is closed, for the first time Simon looks at the landscape. And we can see how beautiful this place is, but it’s too late now.”
Meier worked with her young leading man on her first theatrical feature, 2009’s “Home,” where he played Isabella Huppert’s son when he was just 7. She’s emphatic that Klein is not the kind of child actor who has to be tricked into giving a performance.
“During the first casting, I ask him, ‘What do you like to do in your life, Kasey?’ And he told me, ‘Thinking.’ So I said ‘OK, think,’ and I turned on the camera, and he was amazing … He understands that acting is to be, not to look like. So I really wanted to write for him with this film, because it was such an amazing experience on my first film.”
The role of the severely neglectful “sister” was tougher to nail down, both for the director and her leading actress.
“This character was the challenge of the film,” Meier said. “Because Kacey’s character is a child, so for the spectator, of course he’s a victim. But with the character of Louise, for Lea as an actress, at the beginning for her it was very hard to find the fragility of the character. I showed her a lot of films like ‘Vagabond’ … I explained to her, you were 14 when you were pregnant; it was too young for a girl, and you stopped your studies and got bad jobs [after] you cut [ties] with your family."
Sometimes, she said, they'd fight because "she couldn’t find the fragility of the character, and suddenly, months later, wow — it was like we cut something open and all the emotion that came out from her was very deep. I was afraid of the spectators judging the character. It was not easy, in the writing, or in the directing with the actors, because I wanted that they would love these characters, even if they’re sometimes terrible. But I like terrible characters.”
Pond told Meier that when it came to supporting actress Gillian Anderson, of “X-Files” fame, “the first time I watched, I didn’t realize it was her till the end credits” — an experience probably shared by most of those in attendance at the screening.
“I’m very happy that you say that,” said Meier, “because if you recognize the actress, you think about the actress.” But the director did want Armstrong to provoke a where-have-I-seen-you-before vibe.
“I really wanted [the ski-mom tourist character] to be played by a star — not to have a star in my film, but because it was important for Simon to have a kind of phantasma [about] this lady, of what he wants as a mother. And as a spectator, you can have a phantasma on the star. So I like that she came from another country, and not speak French, because she’s almost an apparition.”
Meier admitted she was frightened before the Swiss premiere — before “Sister” went on to play various fests and win the special Golden Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival.
“When I had the first screening in Switzerland, a lady came back to me and was very moved by the film, because it’s usually a taboo to show poverty in Switzerland. She cried and told me, ‘I grew up in exactly the same place. My father was a worker in the factory we saw in the film, and as a child we never had the money to go up.’ I liked that she just said up.”