Sister, Ursula Meier, 97 mins (15) Elena, Andrey Zvyagintsev, 109 mins (12A)

The last resort – ain’t no mountain high enough in this bleak Alpine drama

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Usually, when an Alpine ski resort features in a film, James Bond is hurtling through it with a trio of Spectre agents in hot pursuit. But in Sister we see what it's like to live in such a resort all year round, even when the snow and the tourists have melted away.

Well, to live near one, anyway: in Ursula Meier's compassionate drama, the 12-year-old protagonist (Kacey Mottet Klein) is actually trapped in a run-down town at the bottom of a Swiss mountain, far below the luxury chalets and après-ski. How's that for a symbol of the distance between the haves and the have-nots? His parents are nowhere to be seen, and his older sister (Léa Seydoux) would rather go off with unsuitable men than get a job, so Klein has to support them both. Every morning he rides the cable car up to the resort, where he swipes skis, gloves and goggles from unwary holidaymakers, and then sells them to his friends in town.

The runty, big-eared Klein is a strangely sympathetic thief – young and naive enough to believe that he's just helping out his adored sister, and that his victims won't miss what he takes from them. Besides, money matters less to him than the chance to visit a different, happier world.

At several points in the film, it looks as if his life might change, such as when he encounters Martin Compston's chef, who fancies himself as a Fagin to the boy's Artful Dodger, or when he befriends Gillian Anderson, a well-groomed tourist who represents the familial closeness he dreams of. But neither of these relationships takes the story in a new direction. Meier, who made documentaries before she turned to fiction with the marvellous Home in 2008, simply shows us Klein's existence, but she doesn't reassure us that it's going to improve. He may take the cable car up the mountain each day, but he's always got to take it back down again.

Another drama about the gap between rich and poor, Elena is a film noir with a contemporary Russian twist: its scheming femme fatale is a modest, stocky, 60-year-old housewife (Nadezhda Markina). She was once her wealthy husband's nurse, but even now that they're married, there's no forgetting which side of the tracks she came from: her son from a previous marriage – much like the boy in Sister – subsists in a cramped high-rise flat in the suburbs. It would take a small fortune to turn his life around, but Markina's husband (Andrey Smirnov) is reluctant to pay up. And when his own estranged, wild-child daughter comes back into the picture, Markina realises that she may have to take drastic measures.

Elena is a model of cool, elegant restraint: it observes its murder plot with the same clinical detachment as it observes Smirnov's drive to the gym. This aloofness gives you chills for days after you've seen the film, but while you're watching, it's too cold to grip you as tightly as a classic noir.

It also leaves you with a sour taste in your mouth. Its condemnation of the working classes as ignorant spongers will go down better at the Daily Mail than it will around these parts.

Next Week

Nicholas Barber sees Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone, the new film from Jacques Audiard, director of A Prophet