The family business

I’d give you the shirt off my back—if I had one.

I’d give you the shirt off my back—if I had one.

Rated 3.0

Director and co-writer Ursula Meier’s latest movie is playing here as Sister, but its original French title is L’enfant d’en Haut—roughly “the kid to the top.” A tough title to translate, but more to the point, because the focus of Meier and Antoine Jaccoud’s script (“with the participation of Gilles Taurand”) is on 12-year-old Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) rather than the older sister Louise (Léa Seydoux), with whom he lives. The “top” is a mountain ski resort towering over the valley where Simon and Louise live in their faceless block apartment; every day Simon rides the tramway up there, and bundled up like any vacationer, face hidden behind a wool mask and ski goggles, he rifles the closets and changing rooms of the resort for anything he can steal—skis, goggles, gloves, jackets—and sell to the kids down home. This is how Simon and Louise get by, and Simon contributes far more to the household finances than Louise with her spotty work record and casual hookups with men as faceless as her apartment.

Simon isn’t a very clever thief, but he’s lucky. He’s especially lucky when Mike (Martin Compston), the Scottish cook at the resort who catches him red-handed in one of the restaurant’s storerooms, turns out to have a matching tendency toward black-market larceny. Mike becomes an accomplice, helping Simon expand his customer base to the other cooks, instructors and seasonal workers at the resort—men with more money to spend than the neighborhood kids down below. Simon’s new clientele have no illusions about where Simon’s merchandise is coming from, but they’re willing to pay him a hefty commission for stealing stuff they’re too cautious to swipe themselves.

Simon’s relationship with Louise is not a simple one. He’s the family breadwinner —such bread as he manages to win—yet he’s the younger sibling. It’s not easy (at least at first) to say how much younger; Louise looks and acts different ages at different times. She could be anywhere between 16 and 30 (actress Seydoux is in fact 27). One moment she’s rolling on the floor laughing and wrestling with Simon like a playmate, then the next she’s shuffling from room to room like a haggard hungover ghost, cigarette dangling from her drooping lips. Louise has a look of perpetual—or stunted—youth that’s like a ticking time bomb. There’s a sense that here’s a girl/woman who will look 17 until she’s 40, then seemingly overnight will suddenly look 55.

Mid-movie, there’s new information added that at first we’re not sure we can believe. We’re not sure because we hear it from Simon himself, and he’s shown himself to be an inveterate liar—in fact, he’s a bit better at it than he is at stealing. He tells Mike that his parents were killed in an automobile accident, although he says it with such casual aplomb that we doubt if even Mike believes it. Another time, with more conviction, he tells Kristin Jansen (Gillian Anderson), a nice lady who befriends him on the slopes, that his parents run a luxury hotel, and that his own name is Julien—which happens to be her son’s name. (In the sort of coincidence that so often crops up in auteur-theory movies, it also happens to be the name of the character young Klein played in another Meier movie, Home).

Our view of Simon suddenly alters, and we see him in a less perplexing light. Can it be that he’s looking for more from Mike than simple partnership in crime? Is it like with the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist, who got more from Fagin than simple instructions for picking pockets? Simon himself becomes a curious mix of the Dodger and Oliver, half wise guy and half wide-eyed kid looking for love. He’s the Dodger with Mike, Oliver with the patrician Ms. Jansen; he chats her up pleasantly, but doesn’t seem to be setting her up as a mark; he never thinks that far ahead. Later, when he does finally steal from her—in a plot turn so subtle it almost goes unnoticed—it’s an impulse, but one perhaps subconsciously calculated to bring more trouble on Louise than it does on himself.

Meier’s last shot is unsubtle, but apt: Simon and Louise pass each other on the tramway, one headed up, the other down—but both somehow going nowhere.