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FILM OF THE WEEK: Ursula Meier’s SISTER is a cold yet heart-wrenching coming-of-age drama

Sister

The 2013 Alliance Française French Film Festival is now underway in Auckland (and several other New Zealand locations), providing film lovers with some much appreciated respite from the weak February releases at multiplexes. Of the three films I have seen at the festival so far, this week’s pick by a considerable margin is Sister (L’Enfant d’en Haut), the impressive sophomore film from French-Swiss filmmaker Ursula Meier (Home). You can find my review below, as well as capsule reviews of Camille Rewinds (Camille Redouble) and The Painting (Le Tableau), and be sure to look out for more updates from the festival soon.

Sister - Kacey Mottet Klien, Lea Seydoux

Sister details the fraught relationship between Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein), a resourceful 12-year-old boy who steals ski equipment to get by, and his troubled older sister, Louise (Léa Seydoux), with whom he lives in a housing complex below a fancy Swiss ski resort. The film begins somewhat lightheartedly as we witness Simon’s craftiness on the slopes, proving himself a seasoned hustler as he hawks rich tourists’ gear to the local valley kids. Simon is methodical in his behaviour and alarmingly adult, seemingly happy to provide for his polar opposite sister as she drifts in and out of dead-end jobs and relationships. The pair have an intense chemistry — with Mottet Klein alternately feral and tender, and the glammed-down Seydoux (Farewell, My Queen) coolly distant — and a surprising second act reveal sheds light on their complex dynamic and leads the film into darker territory.

Meier uses the atmospheric setting to great effect throughout, exploring the cruel contrasts between the high and low worlds, which are impeccably shot by regular Claire Denis cinematographer Agnès Godard. The handheld camerawork is shot at Simon’s level on the mountain, immersing us in his experience and showing how inconspicuous he is amongst the thongs of privileged tourists, before revealing just how small and alone he is in dramatic wide shots as he drags his loot-filled sled home. Obvious influences here are Belgian social realists Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne — particularly 2011’s The Kid with a Bike — and English pioneer Ken Loach (Kes), whose Sweet Sixteen lead Martin Compston appears here as a Scottish café employee at the resort who becomes complicit in Simon’s theft. Despite these touchstones, however, Sister proves Meier to be a gifted filmmaker in her own right, gracefully straddling the bleak and the heart-wrenching in convincing fashion and providing us with a real sense of place. The distinct lack of authority figures — police, security, social workers, etc. — marks a point of difference here, adding a fable-like quality to the narrative.

With Sister, Meier and her talented collaborators — including co-writer Antoine Jaccoud, Gillian Anderson (The X-Files) in a key supporting role, and a sparse, haunting score from regular P.J. Harvey producer John Parish — deliver a well-observed, unsentimental and ultimately heartbreaking portrait of a pair of castaways that feels authentic, thanks largely to the galvanising performances from the remarkable young leads. This is one of the strongest European dramas of 2012; don’t miss it.

RATING: A-

Sister is screening in Auckland at Rialto and Bridgeway cinemas over the next two weeks. Find out the screening times here, and watch the trailer below.

Camille Rewinds

CAMILLE REWINDS

French star Noémie Lvovsky (House of Pleasures) directs herself in the time-travelling, crowd-pleasing rom-com Camille Rewinds (Camille Redouble). After being left for a younger woman on New Year’s Eve by her lifelong love (Samir Guesmi), struggling 40-year-old actress and borderline alcoholic Camille awakens in a hospital bed the following day as a 16-year-old again. Vowing not to repeat the same mistakes that led to her unhappiness, Camille — still played by Lvovsky, occasionally to humourous effect — makes every effort to avoid her future husband and the father of her child, but this proves more difficult than imagined. Lvovsky’s slight film has no interest in the philosophy of its time travel plot, nor in adding anything new to the subgenre, seemingly happy to merely update Francis Ford Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married with a 2000s/1980s French setting and a dash of Bridget Jones Diary. Lvovsky and her cast are charming company throughout and the whimsical film is pleasant enough, but it’s rewards are minor and the end result is rather forgettable.

RATING: C+

Camille Rewinds is screening in Auckland at Rialto and Bridgeway cinemas over the next two weeks.

The Painting

THE PAINTING (LE TABLEAU)

Set in a kingdom inside a painting, Jean-François Laguionie’s enchanting animated parable The Painting (Le Tableau) boasts an imaginative concept and some big ideas for a family-oriented adventure film. The story centres on an inquisitive teenage girl, Lola, who is a “Halfie” (not fully coloured) and therefore deemed to be lesser by the ruling class of (entirely painted) “Alldunns”. When the forbidden love of her Halfie friend and an Alldunn inspires evil prejudices, Lola and a few friends — including an even less esteemed “Sketchy” — set off on a mission to find the Painter, exploring several different worlds as they leap from canvas to canvas and attempt to understand the intentions of their creator. The film is never less than admirable in its ambition and inventive in its execution, including an interesting blend of live action and animation in the final act, but the characters ironically never quite feel fully formed.

RATING: B-

The Painting (Le Tableau) is screening again tomorrow at Rialto cinemas.

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