Directed by Stephanie Chuat and Veronique Reymond, My Little Sister, Switzerland’s entry for the Academy Awards, works with a lot of familiar themes and family melodrama. At times it hints at something poignant, but on the whole it comes up short because of a reactionary lead that can’t catch a break.
The titular “little sister” is Lisa, played by Nina Hoss, probably best known domestically for her recurring role in Homeland. She is the fraternal twin of Sven (Lars Eidinger from High Life), younger by two minutes, hence her ceremonial title. She’s a mother of two, a playwright and literature teacher, and wife to the headmaster at a Swiss magnet school. In a normal film all of this would be crucial information to Lisa’s character and inform her actions throughout the story. Here, they’re little more than offhanded bullet points, because unfortunately Lisa isn’t really allowed to have her own agency or character motivations.
The film opens with her in a hospital room, as a machine drains blood from her arm. In a neighboring room, Sven struggles for life. He has cancer, and Lisa is donating bone marrow in hopes of aiding his recovery. As soon as he’s healthy enough to leave, she takes him back to the theatre where he performs (currently a modernized version of Hamlet) so he can resume rehearsals from his understudy. Only in an aside conversation with the director in the next scene do we learn that Lisa is herself a writer and has been working on some new plays for several years, but has hit a block.
That’s the prevailing theme throughout the movie. Things happen around Lisa, and she’s basically left holding the bag, reacting as best as she can, if not always rationally, and feeling guilt for not being able to account for every contingency. She literally gets to do nothing on her own, or for her own benefit. In Berlin, where Sven lives, Lisa moves him in with their mother (Marthe Keller from Marathon Man), who hasn’t bothered to clean the place up in anticipation of his hospital discharge, and who still openly smokes right in Sven’s face despite him having fucking CANCER! It falls to Lisa to then pick up the pieces and try to sort the place out. But when it’s clear that her mother can’t take care of Sven the way he needs, she does the only thing she can. She takes him with her back to Switzerland to live with her family temporarily.
That turns out to not be a better situation, because Sven is over-the-top whiny with boredom in his convalescence, caring only about when he’ll be able to get back on stage, even though that’s not a reasonable expectation in his state. When he gets bad news, he spirals into destructive behavior like random blowjobs in bar toilets and drinking himself sick. And only once he’s back in hospital does he even take a moment to give Lisa some appreciation and remark about their twin relationship. Again, we can infer from the title that Lisa is the younger of the two, but there’s no indication that they’re twins until Sven mentions it in a stupor. At times they hint at the rapport between them, like Sven pointing out that Lisa stopped writing the day he was diagnosed, but that’s about it. Every once in a while it seems like this movie wants the two to have the same chemistry that Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig had in The Skeleton Twins, and it’s hard not to look for that dynamic because Lisa and Sven as characters are similarly constructed. But we only get fits and spurts among the melodrama, and it only serves as a reminder that Hader and Wiig did this so much better because they at least had some dedicated scenes to bond.
Then there’s Lisa’s husband, Martin (Jens Albinus from Dancer in the Dark). At first he seems like a reasonable foil to Lisa, doing his best to do right by his family, even though it’s clear he doesn’t approve of Sven’s personality and his desire to remain in Switzerland for the stability of his job is at odds with Lisa’s wish to go back to Berlin and be a full-time playwright again. But as befits every adult character in this film (the kids are mostly just props, though they do have cute moments with Sven), he acts without considering Lisa’s feelings and the mountain of shit on her plate, then wonders why she gets frustrated. As such, tensions mount, and Martin makes decisions behind her back just so he can move on to the next thing.
And that’s all fine. It’s a perfectly valid story idea, even though it’s been done to death. The same goes for the characterizations of everyone around Lisa. The problem is that it beggars belief for all of them to be this oblivious to Lisa’s wants and needs. And at the same time, it’s short-sighted and irrational for Lisa to somehow pin all her hopes for sanity on denying the reality of Sven’s condition and think that writing a play for him will somehow lead to him having normal quality of life when he’s essentially already chosen death. It also doesn’t make sense from a thematic standpoint, because when you read/hear a title like My Little Sister, the natural instinct is to imagine a family dynamic and a focus on one sibling’s relationship to another. Instead, the action of the film would lend itself more to a title like The Unappreciated Woman, or if we want to be more on the nose, Belittled Sister (since the “My” personal pronoun is only implicit in the translation of the German title). I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I’m saying that it doesn’t make sense in context, since Sven isn’t a point-of-view character, and almost nothing that happens in the film is about his relationship with Lisa.
All that said, this isn’t a bad film. There’s good camera work and the performances are fine for what they are. The movie itself just lacks direction for the plot. All this stuff happens to Lisa, and she’s left to react, but nothing ever resolves. Everything escalates to one degree or another from all sides, but there’s no real climax or conclusion, which definitely seems out of place seeing as how Lisa’s a writer and Shakespeare is invoked throughout the film. The entire movie is one large Gordian knot of dangled plot threads. Maybe that’s intentional, to symbolize the scattershot ways in which Lisa is expected to deal with the world around her, but it’s never made clear, and because of that, the film suffers as a whole. We’re told everything about Lisa without seeing any of it, and in the end she shows us nothing. Given that the whole film is about this, I have to ask, how are we supposed to react to that?
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? How do you deal with your siblings? Have you ever donated bone marrow, and if so, what’s it like? Let me know!