“My Little Sister” – An unbreakable bond
by Neely Swanson
“My Little Sister,” written and directed by Stéphanie Cuat and Véronique Reymond is a thoughtful and deep look at the bonds both breakable and unbreakable in family.
Lisa, played by the exquisite Nina Hoss (“Phoenix”), is first seen lying in a hospital bed, hooked up to interminable tubes and fluids. But it is not she who is ill, it is her twin brother Sven in the next room who is joined to her by these umbilical cords of hope; hope that the bone marrow transplant he is undergoing will stop the advancing cancer from which he suffers.
Lisa’s primary tie is to the ailing Sven (an excellent Lars Eidinger, last seen in “Proxima”). They share a life in the Berlin theater world where she is a playwright and he is a renowned actor. Their theatrical roots lie deep; their parents were a famous acting team. But unlike their mother, the remaining parent, their love is rooted in mutual support and respect. Mother Kathy (the unforgettable international star Marthe Keller) is a narcissist for the ages. Watch as Sven almost breaks his neck in her cluttered apartment and she makes it his fault; that, as well as his cancer which she finds a major inconvenience.
Her selfishness is as deep as Lisa’s selflessness making them two sides of the same coin because as Lisa draws ever more protectively close to Sven and devoted to his needs, she begins withdrawing from her husband.
She is desperate to provide Sven with his one desire: to be on stage again as Hamlet in the production their friend and colleague David is directing in Berlin. Sven was cast in the lead, a part he has played to great acclaim, but David has reneged. He feels that Sven is too ill and he can’t risk the theater’s financial existence to satisfy what he is viewing as a whim. But this isn’t a whim, it’s life or death for him. Lisa, who hasn’t written a word in months, does everything in her power to convince David and help her brother fulfill his last wish.
Lisa is most alive in Berlin but is presently living in Switzerland where her husband Martin is the headmaster of an elite boarding school, currently ranked as one of the top ten in the world. They had an arrangement by which they moved to Switzerland for his career and would reassess their status after his contract expires. She has never adapted to the picturesque blandness of Switzerland and is as eager to leave and Martin is to stay. The very existence of this boarding school, home to the children of oligarchs, is offensive to her; her teaching job there fulfils none of her ambitions or desires. Although their two daughters are eligible for free tuition, Lisa is adamant that they not attend. Her life is not here and she is drowning. But what about Martin? What about his needs and ambitions?
Lisa frames all her actions as a need for communication but it is more one-sided than she will admit. Her world is and always has been her twin. She loves her children, that is clear, and loves or at least loved her husband. But as she closes the protective wall around Sven, she is also removing herself from a world she seems no longer able to face.
Marital and personal disintegration are subjects that will never get old because they are ongoing and relatable. Cuat and Reymond have put their mark on this genre with the help of an outstanding cast. It is not coincidental that Eidinger, Hoss, and Ostermeier have such a seamless relationship on screen. They all trained at the Ernst Busch School of Theater in Berlin and both Eidinger and Hoss are members of Berlin’s Schaubühne Theatre where Ostermeier has directed them many times.
We are watching a very painful chapter in the life of one woman whose singular focus has an outsized effect on those around her. It’s never a question of who will survive this ordeal or how. This is a portrait of a moment in time. It is not the beginning nor is it the end; it just is.
No one is right if everyone else is wrong; no one is wrong if everyone else is right.
In German, French, and English with subtitles.
Opening on January 15 in Virtual Cinema at the Laemmle Theatres and the South Bay Film Society.