There’s an explanation as to why Switzerland isn’t a popular setting for social realist films: because, well, poverty’s a bit of a non-issue there. With social provisions so high and efficient, even if unemployed, you’ve really got to try to be destitute.
This is just one of several reasons why Ursula Meier’s Competition entry L’enfant d’en haut (Sister) doesn’t work, all of which have to do with Meier and her co-writers overlooking the ‘realism’ bit in the definition of the genre they decided to tackle.
Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) lives alone with his older sister Louise (Léa Seydoux). They are penniless because Louise can’t hold on to a job, so Simon spends his days up in the nearby ski resort, stealing skis and various equipment to sell in order to feed and clothe the both of them.
Plausibility is further dispelled by the extent to which Simon is resourceful and streetwise for a 12-year-old, never mind the fact that he is able to steal so much from the same ski resort over a whole season without anyone ever starting to look out for thieves.
It then turns out that Louise is not in fact his sister, but his mother. She never wanted to have him, so they agreed to lie about being siblings so as not to impinge on Louise’s social life. Right… I wonder at what age this agreement was reached.
This failed mother-son relationship is the crux of the film, but it’s simply impossible for such an affected narrative to generate genuine pathos. It doesn’t help that scenes that are meant to be tragic, are actually quite risible, as when Louise demands that Simon pay her 200 Swiss francs (roughly €160) for the privilege of sleeping in her bed. Too bad, really, as the young Klein is an impressive actor and would have been perfect, if only the script had been his equal.
Compare L’enfant d’en haut with Prílis mladá noc (A Night Too Young), and the benefit of actual realism when exploring human emotions becomes evident.
Premiering today in the Forum, this feature debut by Czech director Olmo Omerzu is a far more rewarding exploration of the negative impact the actions of irresponsible adults can have on children. It revolves around two boys, also 12 years old, who spend a night in the apartment of their schoolteacher and her two friends, where the threesome are having a party.
It’s not about the boys being traumatized by their first experience of alcohol and drugs, but about the premature insight they get into the more repulsive aspects of adult psychology at the hands of their hosts, who inflict pain on one another all night through their complete self-centeredness. Understated, thoughtful, and touching – it’s a beautiful and thought-provoking achievement. My full-length review can be found here.