Featuring: Kacey Mottet Klein, Léa Seydoux, Martin Compston, Gillian Anderson
Director: Ursula Meier
Writers: Antoine Jaccoud, Ursula Meier, Gilles Taurand
Reviewer: rolanstein (one-word verdict: bleak)
12-year-old Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein) lives with his unemployed adult sister Louise (Léa Seydoux) in a high-rise block on the impoverished outer edge of an upmarket Swiss ski resort area. Louise is no care-giver, leaving the role of provider to Simon, who has created a profitable little business stealing and re-selling skis and other equipment, and otherwise living off his wits amid the affluence of the ski resort.
He is not acquisitive or money-orientated; rather, he steals to survive and in the hope of winning Louise’s affection. She, meantime, takes off for days at a time until funds or her current boyfriend run out on her, then turns to alcohol for comfort – at Simon’s financial and emotional expense.
The situation is unsustainable; it is only a matter of time before something gives…
This strikingly naturalistic film trains an unsentimental spotlight on a neglected child struggling to negotiate his way through an affluent adult world unsympathetic to his plight, and mostly unmindful of it.
Indeed, Simon does his best to stay under the radar, as is sensible for a kid living off thievery. And as thieves go he’s a pro despite his tender years, not to mention a skilled salesman.
In a sense, this prowess works against him. As sorry as his true plight is, he copes so well on the surface that he evades the compassionate attention he so desperately needs. When a holidaymaker (Gillian Anderson) at an al fresco restaurant notices that he is alone and eyeing off the food remnants on vacated tables, she invites him to join her family for lunch. He deflects her subsequent questions about his family, lying that his parents are rich hotel owners too caught up in their own pursuits to be concerned about his whereabouts during the day. While his appearance is at odds with his claims, he backs up his well-spun story by flashing wads of ill-begotten cash as evidence of his family wealth, and tries (unsuccessfully) to insist on footing the family’s bill.
Underlying the obvious motivation for his ostentatious generosity is the sense that he feels unworthy of the stranger’s kindness, compelled to pay by the hour for being cared about, leasing maternal attention as it were.
A pitifully sad precedent has been set at home, with Louise. Simon routinely seeks to buy her affection. In one scene, he begs her to allow him to sleep next to her. She coldly fobs him off until he resorts to bribing her. Even then, she bargains his last cent out of him before acceding. Since she is prepared to trade the comfort of her physical presence for her desperately lonely little brother’s illicit and hard-come-by cash, it is puzzling that she gives herself freely to the men she pursues rather than charging them for her services.
The very notion that a child should have to pay for love and succour is heart-rending, yet this scene – and indeed the entire movie – is curiously lacking in emotional clout.
It is certainly no fault of Kacey Mottet Klein, whose performance as Simon is quite remarkable – about as good as it gets. The problem is, while his situation is appalling, his character is not endearing. He is Other, difficult to identify with, evoking a detached, obligatory brand of sympathy, rather than the wrenching emotional reaction that might be expected.
This bothered me. Perhaps it shouldn’t have. For the most part, the movie is determinedly flat-toned, a naturalistic fly-on-the-wall access to a miserable mode of being hidden to most of us, and free of the type of manipulative emotion-plumbing that we have been conditioned to expect of filmmakers. The effect is to throw the viewer’s focus back on themselves, to have us question our response – or lack of it – to Simon’s circumstances and repressed suffering. A shrewd and cleverly executed strategy…
However, there are dramatic shortfalls that detract somewhat from this otherwise fine piece of cinematic realism.
Louise, for example. Seydoux makes the best of the material she has to work with, but the character doesn’t quite work. There are too many contradictions in her psychological mix.
Initially she appears genuinely fond of Simon, if neglectful of his welfare, but as the film progresses she shows up as almost psychopathically selfish, callously uncaring of him, and at times, downright cruel.
Further, she’s a natural born gold digger, too bloody attractive, and too mercenary, to keep lucking out with loser blokes as she does. On one hand, she’s capable of terrible unfeeling exploitation of Simon; on the other, she’s a hopeless dependent in constant doomed quest of love, in such pain as each dalliance comes to nothing that she routinely responds by drinking herself into a stupour.
As the film approaches its climax, such as it is, there is a scene that could and should have been profoundly affecting: its emotional power is in-built. Louise, who has finally scored a job as a cleaner at a guesthouse, is asked to mind a departing guest’s baby for a short while. Simon watches on as she changes its nappy (as if!), cooing over it in a perplexing display of maternal tenderness that is jarringly out of character. Poor Simon watches on in dawning cognition that she may once have fussed over him in similar manner. Hope for the poor little bugger, at last..!
Alas, the opportunity to turn this into an stunning redemptive moment for Louise, and to allow Simon some relief from the incessant bleakness of his life, is not taken up. On the contrary, what happens next marks a low for both characters.
Steering clear of Hollywood-style sentimentality is one thing; wallowing in unrelenting misery, and allowing the characters no development, not the merest crack of light in the darkness of their existence, is another.
To be fair, the film ends on an ambivalent tone that is not without hopeful resonance for the doomed lead pair, but alas, the opportunity to bring the piece to a dramatically more filling and meaningful conclusion without compromising its realism has passed.
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