December 9, 2013
‘I wanted to step away from social realism’
Filmmaker Ursula Meier talks about her Berlinale winner drama Sister
Back in 2008, Franco-Swiss director Ursula Meier made Home, with Isabelle Huppert and Olivier Gourmet playing the leads — a most inspired, original take on the life of an isolated rural family which is upended when a major highway next to their property, constructed ten years before but apparently abandoned, is finally opened. Think of it as the story of a group of everyday people trapped in a surrealistic nightmare from which they can’t awaken.
Ursula’s Meier second film L’enfant d’en haut (Sister /La Hermana) is a drama set at a Swiss ski resort and centred on Simon, a boy who supports himself and his sister by stealing from wealthy guests.
Heartfelt and subtle, L’enfant d’en haut is about observing how people relate (or attempt to) as regards emotional liaisons and how they survive amid a hostile and disagreeable environment.
Ursula Meier spoke candidly to the Herald about how his second feature film was born.
When and how did the idea for L’enfant d’en haut first surface?
I wanted to work again with Kacey Mottet Klein, the kid who played Julien in Home. I felt I wanted to do a more profound work with him. So I thought of the story of a child who’s a thief at a ski resort and then sells the ski gear at a lower price to people who don’t have much money. He lives at the feet of the Alps, in an area that’s not well-off at all. That’s where his real life is. When he goes up to the ski resort, he enters a world he doesn’t belong to, a world only for the rich from around the world. So up there he’s a thief, he steals ski gear. I like how this vertical view of the world can say a lot with very few cinematographic elements.
What about his family?
My co-writer Antoine Jaccoud and I knew that a child has to have parents, but I didn’t want to tell a story where the parents eventually found out that their son was a thief and then would punish him for doing wrong or something like that. Instead, I was interested in making a film about a child in need of love. So we thought he could have a sister. We never know where the parents are or if they are alive. And then there would be an unexpected revelation that would change how we see the characters and their relationship. But it doesn’t change the course of the story.
How does Simon feel about stealing? Does it make him nervous? Does he enjoy it?
I believe he doesn’t think about it, he just goes and does it. But he takes pleasure in doing it, he does like to wear expensive new jackets. This way, he feels he’s rich like the people he steals from. Up in the ski resort, he lives an imaginary life. Down at the feet of the Alps, he’s a mere worker. But up in the mountains he can fantasize he’s the son of rich and loving parents. Having an imaginary life makes it easier for him to survive in the real one.
And he also regards his stealing as a real job.
Yes, absolutely. He even exchanges an item if the person who bought it has some problem with it. To him, he’s just like a regular owner of a shop. He even administers the money like a businessman.
Did you know the ending of the film when you started writing it?
No, I didn’t. And it took us a long time to find the ending the film had to have. We had everything but the ending. We even casted the movie not knowing how it would finish. It was very stressful. But then I met Léa Seydoux, who plays Louise, the sister, and it was a revelation. I understood things about the film thanks to meeting her, so I immediately wrote the ending. It was strange.
Because when you see Léa there are a lot of things you can’t know about her. She keeps an air of mystery about her. Just like her character. You can’t tell where Louise comes from, which social class she belongs to, whether her parents are rich or poor. Sometimes she looks like she’s in her early twenties whereas other times she looks older. Same thing with Léa. This way, you can project things on her face, it all gets more enigmatic because you don’t explain the whole background of the character.
L’enfant d’en haut is never melodramatic or sentimental, but it’s very touching, it’s filled with feelings and so the characters feel more real.
Yes, that’s what we aimed at. It’s so easy to make viewers identify with a character that it’s easy to like. I know how to write that kind of story. I really want people to be moved, but in a good way, that is to say moved by real characters and not by artificial narrative devices.
Why a love story involving Louise?
Because it allowed me to move the film away from strict social realism. In part, it’s a social film, but one without police or social workers. I’d say it’s much more of a fable than anything else. In fact, it was with Léa that L’enfant d’en haut grew more into a fable. A fairy tale.