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Ursula Meier mixes reality into her film ‘Sister’

Ursula Meier’s new film, “Sister,” has a thread from her own childhood memory of a boy who hung around a ski resort and who she was warned might be a thief.

FRED R. CONRAD/THE NEW YORK TIMES

Ursula Meier’s new film, “Sister,” has a thread from her own childhood memory of a boy who hung around a ski resort and who she was warned might be a thief.

NEW YORK — Ursula Meier’s 2008 debut feature, “Home,” was a nightmarish eco-fable about a family whose world is turned upside down when an abandoned, unfinished four-lane highway suddenly opens to traffic right outside the front window of their house. Led by a headstrong mother, played by Isabelle Huppert, the family fiercely refuses to move away, despite toxic exhaust, the incessant swarm of passing cars and honking trucks, and the cracks forming in their increasingly fragile psyches.

With Meier’s new film, “Sister,” which opens in the Boston area on Friday, the allegorical aspects of the story are not apparent at first. While “Home” was suffused with surreal, dreamlike qualities with tinges of science fiction and horror, “Sister” initially projects an air of Ken Loach-style social realism, with nods to the Dardenne brothers, in its story of a complex relationship between a reedy 12-year-boy and his sullen, troubled older sister. But as the film progresses, Meier says she wanted to highlight the parable-like qualities of the story.

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“With ‘Home,’ you saw straight away that it was going to be a fable. But with ‘Sister,’ at the beginning, I wanted you to think that it would be more of a social [realist] film. It does have some elements that suggest it is also a fable, but it doesn’t hit you in the face when you see it. I wanted it to start off with realism and to gradually detach from it,” says Meier, speaking in a mix of English and French, translated through an interpreter, during a recent visit to Manhattan.

As Switzerland’s official entry in this year’s Oscar sweepstakes for foreign language film, “Sister” revolves around Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein, from “Home”), who lives alone with his sister, Louise (Léa Seydoux), inside a bleak apartment tower at the foot of the snow-capped Alps. Every day, Simon ascends inside a cable car from the industrial valley to the luxurious Swiss ski resort on the mountaintop, disguising himself as a vacationer. There he pilfers backpacks for hats, gloves, sunglasses, and steals skis from the outdoor racks; then he resells his take to wealthy tourists, seasonal resort workers, and his fellow urchins living down in the valley. With his sister drifting in and out of jobs and disappearing for days on dates with the men she meets, Simon is the one keeping food on the table and the two of them afloat using the money he earns from his petty thefts and small-time hustling.

Meier acknowledges the influence of Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales, Brothers Grimm fables like “Hansel and Gretel,” and even an English folk tale like “Tom Thumb.” She adds that Simon is like a diminutive “Robin Hood” because he sells his stolen items at a cheaper price to the children of the valley than to the tourists up above. And for a scene when a group of children carry a passed-out Louise across farmland to the imposing apartment tower in the distance, Meier thought of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” (The French title of the film, “L’Enfant d’en Haut,” translates in English to the fable-esque “The Child From Above.”)

“I think cinema is imagination. And for this film, it’s true that I wanted to shoot using a realistic setting,” she says. “But then I wanted to become somewhat detached from the real.”

With a tight smile and alert eyes behind black-framed glasses, Meier, 41, comes across as friendly and self-possessed. She grew up in the small French city of Besançon, near the border with Switzerland, on the edge of the Jura mountains. Of Swiss and French descent, she lives now in Belgium.

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She says she saw “Sister” as a vertical film, not a horizontal one like “Home.” Whereas “Home” was filmed in the mostly flat countryside, “Sister” contrasts the wealthy, privileged world of the ski resort with the bleak reality of the people who live in the valley below.

“We wanted to delineate the social distinctions, but we didn’t want to be miserabilist or to dwell on the poverty of the main characters,” says Meier. “Yes, it’s sad that they don’t have much money. But we didn’t want to wallow in miserabilism, so we really tried to go more in the direction of a fable.”

Ultimately, though, the film is really about the love story between brother and sister, says Meier. “It detours and becomes about the relationship between these two people,” she explains. “Simon needs proof of his sister’s love. . . . I think really it’s a question of how we all need love. And how we can survive if we don’t have it. Because this child, his life is just about survival — surviving physically, financially, and emotionally. He even thinks that he can buy her love with money — when he asks Louise if he can sleep in the bed with her.”

An unexpected revelation about halfway through “Sister” may shift the audience’s perception of the dynamic between the two siblings. Either way, Seydoux says that she struggled with how her enigmatic character often withholds love and affection from Simon — with Louise often fleeing their apartment to chase after a man or drink away her sorrows.

“She has a toughness. She’s always leaving, and every time she escapes, it must be like a punch in the gut for him,” says the gamine, gap-toothed actress, the granddaughter of a French studio chief. “But it wasn’t her coldness that was difficult to play. It was deeper than that, because the story is emotionally violent in a way. And this violence was difficult to play — the violence that you see underneath the relationship.”

Meier acknowledges that “Sister” has a real-life inspiration, but one she didn’t recognize initially. After she had written a draft of the script, she suddenly recalled a childhood memory about a little boy she used to see skiing at a resort. Her ski instructor used to warn his charges to be careful and watch their belongings around the boy, because the resort staff suspected him of being a thief.

“I saw this little boy all alone every time. He liked to ski very fast. And I remember that he was forbidden to come there. He was like a pariah, really,” she recalls. “I thought it was very strange, because to be able to ski you need to have money or belong to a higher social class. In my memory, he was very strange. And I never saw his face. Because when you go skiing, you’re wearing a mask, which is like a disguise.”

The film’s cinematographer, Agnès Godard, first collaborated with Meier on “Home” and has been working with acclaimed French auteur Claire Denis for more than 20 years. Godard shot “Sister” using a digital camera — her first-ever experience with the format, which she says demands a very technical and precise approach to shooting. In a phone interview, Godard says that for shooting the scenes at the resort, they wanted to avoid “postcard images” and other Alpine cliches. For the scenes filmed down in the valley, which is darker and contains the apartment tower looming over the fields surrounding it, Godard felt that “the sadness should come from the character, not from the environment.”

“It was already quite depressive and sad. So I didn’t need to make it any more dark and oppressive. The audience should be moved by the character, by the story, by the drama.”

Godard praises Meier for her boundless imagination and her ability to create an entire universe for the story she’s telling.

“She has an incredible capacity to invent these detailed fictional worlds. . . . It’s so precise that [you] would think it’s autobiographical, but it is not,” says Godard. “And as the cinematographer, you have to choose how to take that information and make it more concise, more right-to-the-point.”

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@
gmail.com
.

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