Another world: Ursula Meier on Sister

Director Ursula Meier reveals how her new film Sister was inspired by the memory of a boy thief she encountered on a childhood skiing trip.

Samuel Wigley

Ursula Meier’s acclaimed debut Home (2008) featured a family of five whose homelife next to a stretch of abandoned highway, which the children use as a recreation ground, is disrupted when developers move in. Her follow-up, Sister, introduces another marginalised family, who live in destitution below an expensive ski resort.

Twelve-year-old Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein, an actor Meier discovered for Home) makes petty cash from stealing ski equipment from the tourists up in the mountains, bringing back a small income (and the occasional swiped packed lunch) to the high-rise tower block where he lives alone with his irresponsible elder sister, Louise (Léa Seydoux).

It’s a story of two worlds living side by side, but linked by the ski lift that takes Simon up the mountain every day for his miniature crime waves. The meaning of all this vertical symbolism is transparent, but as Meier explains she and her cinematographer Agnès Godard (known for her collaborations with Claire Denis) purposefully worked against any simplistic contrasts.

Where did the idea for Sister come from?

It came from several different desires. At first it was the desire to work again with the little boy [Kacey Mottet Klein]. I shot Home with him when he was very young. Then I really wanted him to understand what it felt like to work as an actor, not to work with him as a child. That he become the character, embody the character. I worked with him for a few months, and then suddenly he became very natural. I really loved working with him. And after I felt like I really wanted to work with him again, to write for him.

When you work with a child as your main actor, you take a risk. If the main actor is a child and not a star, you may have more difficulty getting money [to back the project]. Also he’s not a professional, so he can stop when he wants. He’s a child so he can do what he wants. He has no technical acting background. When you work with Isabelle Huppert it’s amazing, but with him [you have to focus on] every gesture, every respiration, everything.

Also I was very fascinated by this place, the topography in this French part of Switzerland, Le Valais. I shot my first film there too, a TV film called Strong Shoulders [Des épaules solides, 2003]. I was very fascinated because you have an industrial landscape, and you follow the smog of the factories, you just look up, and there is another world really. People come from around the world to ski there, rich people, and they never go down. And the people living below, just ten minutes from the ski station, never go up, because they don’t have the money of course but also it’s not their world. From this, you can tell something about our contemporary world.

I had the idea on a train of this little thief, and during the writing suddenly I woke up one morning and realised “Oh my God, this is a memory.” It came back to me after maybe three or four months of writing. I grew up in France, on the frontier with Switzerland, between the Alps and the Jura. There was a ski station ten minutes away by car, so as a child I used to ski a lot. One day I was with a group of children, and the teacher pointed out a little boy and said, “Be careful, he’s a thief. Be careful with your money, your equipment.”

I was very surprised that there was a thief in this kind of place. So in my imagination as a child I asked myself, who was this little boy? Why does he need to steal things? Who are his parents? He was like a pariah in this world (though, unlike Simon in the film, he liked to ski). But eventually he was forbidden to go in the restaurants and to the ski station. It was not a big memory, just a picture. I don’t remember his face.

How did you decide on the visual look of the film with cinematographer Agnès Godard? You deliberately hold back from revelling in the pictorial beauty of the mountains.

Ursula Meier

Ursula Meier

With Agnès, we tried to go against the cliché. Because at the beginning you have up/down, rich/poor. It’s too simple. So in the ski station I film the toilet, the workers’ room, the kitchen – so this is ‘down’ of the ‘up’. I tried to make it seem more complex. With the camera we do the same. In the industrial parts, we tried to make it not too realistic, too naturalistic or miserabilist, but more like a fairytale. For example, [Godard] uses a blue colour for the Christmas part – it’s not realist. We wanted to give the atmosphere a Nordic fairy tale touch, because Simon experiences Christmas like a child. And we used wide angles, so you can see the mountains in the background.

And for the ‘up’ scenes [at the ski station], we tried not to film the mountains too beautifully. You just follow this little ant walking. We didn’t want to show how beautiful the landscape is as we’re with Simon. And at the end, Simon is not working anymore. He’s suddenly alone, it’s the end of the season, the snow is melting, there are no more tourists, the station is closed – for the first he’s just looking around him. At this moment he sees how beautiful the Alps are. Suddenly it’s a larger landscape shot.

So we tried to go against the cliché, because it’s more complex. It’s so symbolic, this verticality, that we tried to go against that. We tried to do it more like a fairy tale, but in a realistic film, because they’re just children. It’s like [Charles Perrault’s story] ‘Le Petit Poucet’ – we thought about this kind of fairy tale, because for me this story is really like a fable: there are no social workers, no police.

Gillian Anderson plays the wealthy tourist who fascinates Simon. How did she get involved?

I really wanted to have a foreign actress, who comes from a foreign landscape, so Simon can dream of what it’s like. America, or England – it’s a dream for a little boy, because [Anderson’s character] doesn’t speak the same language. But I also wanted to have a star. Not just to have a star in my film, because I don’t really care, but someone who is a phantasm, because this character is a phantasm of a mother. She’s real in the film of course, but for Simon she’s an apparition.

So my casting director showed me different pictures of actresses, and I saw Gillian Anderson and thought she’d be a great idea. Gillian received the script and we met and I really liked her so much. She’s an amazing actress.

Léa Seydoux (The Last Mistress, 2007; Mysteries of Lisbon, 2010) normally plays very refined, beautiful women. Did she take some persuading to play such a downtrodden character?

It’s funny because I saw her at the casting session and I thought she was wrong. But when I put Kacey and Léa together, they were touched by the same grace. Something happened during the casting when I put them together. With Léa, the film went in a different direction. It became not so social realist, more fairy tale because she hasn’t played many realist parts. And you can’t place her age, which is great for the character.

At first I didn’t believe that Léa would live in this apartment, but Léa is amazing because she can do everything. She changed so much. She can play a rich, bourgeois girl, she can play a poor girl, she can play with her age. She’s very feminine, but she also has something masculine.

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