Tuesday, September 17, 2013

High and Low

Kacey Mottet Klein and Léa Seydoux in L'enfant d'en haut (Sister)

L'enfant d'en haut (aka: Sister, 2012, directed by Ursula Meier) is the first film that the great cinematographer, Agnes Godard, has shot with a digital camera. I wonder if this is a film that could have been shot digitally before this year or last, because the main drawback of digital has been the dynamic range of the image. This is a film that goes from a physical (and metaphorical) darkness to the blinding white of snowy ski slopes and back with regularity. I can imagine Godard pulling her hair out trying to get her camera to do what she wants. Part of her solution was a careful focus on the film's characters, shot mostly in intimate close-up whenever the landscape threatens to intrude. This is a film set in a spectacular landscape that resolutely ignores that landscape. In an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, Godard tells how she wanted to avoid shooting postcards (and how difficult that is in this film's setting). They don't serve the story, she says. She's wrong about that, but she's such an intuitive artist that her approach manages to integrate the landscape with the story in a way a cinematographer more cowed by the visuals of her surroundings might not. In any event, this is an intimate film.

The story here follows Simon, an enterprising eleven year old thief who makes a living for himself and his sister by wandering off with equipment at Swiss ski resort. His older sister is the irresponsible Louise, who is more interested in the life of a party girl with a succession of bad-for-her men than she is in being a responsible adult. Over the course of the film, Simon conceives ever more elaborate ways to make off with skis and other gear while her sister hooks up with another guy who drives a BMW. Simon has had enough of this, so he confesses to Louise's new beau that Louise is actually his mother. Unfortunately for all involved, this is true, and it succeeds in breaking up the budding relationship while drawing forth a stream of invective from Louise. She never wanted Simon and says so. Meanwhile, up the mountain, Simon has taken a fancy to an English lady and her family, which reminds him of a life he's never had. When Simon is eventually caught, it precipitates a crisis of responsibility for both himself and Louise, who grow ever farther apart as their recriminations grow...

Léa Seydoux in L'enfant d'en haut (Sister)

As I mentioned, this is a gorgeous film, but not for the reasons you might expect. The landscape is used metaphorically, sure. This is a film that communicates with its verticality: when Simon is up high at the resort, he's the master of his world. When he's down below, he's not. The composition of the film also communicates its relationships. Whenever Simon and Louise interact--almost always at the bottom of the mountains--the film is horizontal, composed along the lines of roads and empty fields. The power relationship between a brother and sister is horizontal, after all. Once their true relationship is revealed, The film becomes vertical once again, or reverts to intimate close-ups. The landscape is inescapable in spite of the intentions of the filmmakers, and it becomes a character just by its very existence, standing in for the rocky nature of human beings. The film's last shots are informed by the landscape, and its final shot, a haunting essay in human beings going in opposite directions, synthesizes all of the film's visual themes.

There are social themes here, too. This is very much a film about late capitalism, about the inequities of wealth, about the haves and the have-nots, about the changing face of Europe. The film's visual compositions are of a piece with these themes, too, and given how I've already described the film's verticality, I'm sure you can imagine how it goes about its critique of class and money. Certainly, the film amplifies this by having the English lady whose life Simon craves played by a bona fide movie star in Gillian Anderson.

Kacey Mottet Klein and Gillian Anderson in L'enfant d'en haut (Sister)

For all that, I wish I liked this film better than I do. This is a film with limited dramatic resources. It has, basically, two kinds of scenes: Simon going about the business of stealing, and Simon interacting with Louise. These tend toward repetition and it dilates the experience of watching it over time into something of a chore. Oh, the actors are good. Kacey Mottet Klein is good as Simon and Léa Seydoux seems like she's on the fast track to stardom, but they operate within the constraints of a plot that doesn't have much for them to do. Where as the film's visual sensibility is world-class, it suffers from an under-imagined screenplay. Perhaps more troubling than this, though, is the way the film turns on a gimmick. The revelation that Louise is Simon's mother seems to come out of left field and never seems entirely earned. It's as if writer/director Meier was perhaps aware of the film's dramatic shortcomings and decided it needed a twist to keep the audience interested. In truth, the visuals kept me interested until the end, but I checked out of the plot fairly early. It's worth the slog, ultimately, because the very last scenes are very good indeed.

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