Interview with Ursula Meier

October 28, 2012 | By Adopt Films
Courtesy of Adopt Films

Screenwriter and director Ursula Meier shares notes on her recent film, Sister (released in the US Oct 5, 2012) starring Kacey Mottet Klein, Léa Seydoux & Martin Compston.

A Memory

Long after I had started on the story of “Sister”, the memory of a young boy suddenly came back to me. I grew up in the shadow of the Jura mountains, where going up to a winter resort to ski was a very ordinary thing to do and part of our everyday life. There was a boy who often used to come skiing on his own, whilst we were always in a group. He skied very poorly, yet blasted flat-out down the pistes, as if he was getting high from the speed and risk. He seemed to derive such pleasure from being “up there”. This boy intrigued me, and then I found out that he was banned from the mountain restaurants because he was suspected of stealing from customers. The people who worked in the resort advised us to keep an eye on our things and to keep away from him. But this little thief continued to fascinate me, perhaps because he didn’t really belong in such a setting, not coming from the social class that has the money to pay for ski equipment and lift passes. His stealing carried on and he ended up being permanently banned from riding up to the resort in the cable car. This young thief – without any friends, skiing like a madman on the snow-covered pistes of the Jura – remained an anonymous mystery for me. At the time, I was barely twelve years old, the same age as Simon in the film, and I still remember him.

A Vertical Film

After directing a horizontal film – “Home”, set along a highway in a parallel world which rolls past a few yards from a family’s windows – I wanted to direct a vertical film built around the continual movement between “down below” and “up top”, between an industrial plain and a ski resort in the mountains. The link between these two worlds is a cable car that glides through the void from one to the other, climbing towards the light then dropping back down into the layer of clouds. Up top is the domain of rich tourists who’ve come from around the world to have fun in the sun in a snowy wonderland. Down below, the industrial plain is perpetually in shade. The snow has melted, its chimneys will soon no longer belch out their smoke, its housing blocks isolated at the foot of the mountains. Just as in “Home”, the story of “Sister” is inseparable from its location, which is not simply a setting but which serves to carry the narrative. It was key for me at the early stages of the project to find the film’s form and its energy; what makes it tick, its core. It’s not a case of content on the one hand and form on the other, but an alchemy between the two, which comes into play from the beginnings of the project and the first lines of writing.

Between up top and down below

“Sister” tells the story of child who wants to go up in the world, in every sense of the term, he’s seeking physical, social and financial elevation. While the world down below is nothing but desolation, mud and fog – both literally and symbolically – up top is a garden of delights. Sun, immaculate snow, money, flashiness. Simon feels important up there, whilst remaining anonymous behind his stolen ski goggles. It’s as if he is on stage in a theatre: he has a role, inventing a life for himself with rich parents, in the limelight, wearing a costume. Down below, Simon has a minor role, which he accepts without complaint, understanding that it’s better to have a small role alongside Louise than no role at all. Throughout the film, Simon is torn between up top and down below. His many comings and goings in the local cable car which links the plain with the ski resort punctuate the film and give it its heartbeat. While Simon wants to elevate himself and succeed, Louise is drawn downwards. Disappointed with life and angry at the world of work and men, life doesn’t seem to have given her many breaks. Instead of fighting back and struggling through, Louise has chosen to opt out, to just let things happen and to live from day to day. She doesn’t try to sort her life out, but instead is continually fleeing towards the horizon, taking the highway that runs along the mountainside. It is down this highway that she returns after a long absence. The meeting point between up top and down below, between the cable car station and the highway (the vertical and the horizontal), is Simon’s locker located at the foot of the cable car. This locker is Simon’s dressing room: it is here that he changes, transforms himself to resume his identity as the boy from below, or to become a child from up top, with a middle-class appearance, polite, obliging, but a little thief...

Behind the scenes

The narrative unfolds during a whole ski season from Christmas to Easter, and goes behind the scenes of this tourist industry built on what is known in all seriousness as the “white gold” of the mountains. The life of the seasonal workers seen through Simon’s eyes allows us to discover the other side of the coin. In this sense, “Sister” brings a unique glimpse into the world of ski resorts, which is almost always shown on screen through comedy or else through a certain “imagery” of the mountain (beautiful landscapes with snowy mountaintops, the prowess of the skiers and surfers, and so on). In that world, Simon is like a little ant at work, stealing, fetching and carrying, scraping the snow, hiding the skis, taking them down to the plain by strapping them up and dragging them on his sled, which he doesn’t use for play like most children, but for work like an adult. In his own way, Simon becomes one of the seasonal workers. During the winter before we filmed, I had the opportunity to shadow the police in a ski resort over a long period. So I was able to immerse myself totally in the workings of a resort, at times joined by my co-writers. The director of photography, Agnès Godard, also joined me on several occasions, both down on the plain and in the ski resort. We were able to gradually soak up this rather unusual world so we could find aesthetic approaches appropriate to the story.

An imaginary cartography

After “Home”, which was a contemporary fable about a family and the world, “Sister” represents a wish to make a film that is totally anchored in the real, in this case real locations. That said, I wanted the ski resort and the valley below not to be identifiable by the viewer. The space in which the action takes place is therefore made up of a number of different locations brought together according to an imaginary cartography. There is an aesthetic approach in “Sister” built around the marked pathways of the tourists in ski resorts, who are always in movement (cable cars, chairlifts, etc). This is in contrast with the unmarked routes down below, where Simon cuts across fields on foot, the plain having become over the years a place to pass through leading to the resorts. This industrial plain inspires only one thing in Simon, one single temptation: to look up at the mountains and to climb, higher and higher...

Source: Press Kit / Sister (Adopt Films)

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