Swiss cinema at its peak
by Vincent Adatte
- Cineuropa met the French-Swiss director awarded in Berlin for Sister.
After the critically acclaimed succes of Home [+see also:
film profile], Ursula Meier was the talk of the last Berlinale with her film Sister [+see also:
film profile], a fiction feature filmed high up in the Swiss Alps that was awarded a Golden Bear at the festival.
Cineuropa: How was Sister born?
Ursula Meier: There were several triggers. I wanted to work with Kacey Mottet Klein again, who had acted in Home. At the time, he was very little at seven and a half years old. When I worked with him, it was very empirical, intuitive, and quite experimental. It was fascinating, as he was a blank canvass. I wanted to take it a step further. He also had this grace that some actors have, he has something very powerful. At the same time, I had long been fascinated by the industrial plain near Monthey, at the foot of the Swiss Alps. The place is a witness to today's world. There is something very strong in this verticality. On one side, there is the world above [the film's original title is "The child from above"], with its opulent ski resorts a little like Disneyland and, on the other, what is below, grey, and a little sad. This is what inspired the story of a young boy from the plain who only goes up to altitude to steal ski kit.
You however spin the cliché on its head. In your film, there is much more air below than on the mountain peaks, which are suffocating…
We avoided filming the mountains like a panorama to give hommage to the beauty of the Alps. Above, we stay very close to the child and tighten the frame. And below, it's wider, you can breathe more easily, it's more dream-like. This, in a way, rebalances the two territories.
In Sister, like in Home, there is again the idea of an odd, if not dysfunctional, family. When did this theme appear?
Quite fast. I didn't want the film to gravitate around a fake moral suspense between Simon and Louise, the leading female character. Not only does she know about Simon's stealing, but she actually takes part in it, practically becoming his employee in the second part of the film. Both live in a form of utopia, a little like in Home. They try to live differently according to their own laws and rules. Kacey and Léa Seydoux [who plays Louise], are beautiful together: They have the same grace in front of the camera.
Did you also have Léa Seydoux in mind for the role from the beginning?
No, she turned up much later on. But when I finally met her, I immediately discovered an aspect of the character that had escaped me until then. It allowed us to finish the screenplay, to step away from a purely social film and to move more into the imaginary, the fairy tale.
Not having any other main character reinforces this idea of a fairy tale…
I think that in cinema, what we don't show is just as important as what we do show. It's a real choice in directing and writing. For example, below, apart from Louise's lovers, there are no adults. She is only surrounded by small children, a little like Snow White and the seven dwarfs.
But the description of life backstage in the ski resorts seems very realistic. How did you research this?
One winter, I rented out a flat up in the mountains. I followed the police of a ski resort day and night, and I met seasonal workers. They live in difficult conditions and are sometimes exploited by the restaurant owners. They can't find anywhere to stay and work very hard. The police is completely overwhelmed, and cannot always conduct all the necessary security checks…
What changed between Home and Sister?
Home was extremely precise. The writing was meticulous. Sister is more free. And then, Home needed important preparation, because of its screenplay. We needed an empty section of the highway and a lot of cars… Here [for Sister], I filmed a lot with children. With them, you have to accept that you simply can't control everything. Somehow, I was forced to have more confidence in my directing instinct.