American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Simon, the 12-year-old boy at the center of Ursula Meier's chilly, austere “Sister,” enters without introduction. We don't even get a good look at him for the first few minutes of the movie, because he hides his face beneath a ski mask and helmet. We learn about him simply by following him around a busy Swiss ski resort, apparently unnoticed by everyone but Meier's camera, as he goes about his business, which involves furtively stealing ski equipment from vacationers, hauling it down the mountain in the lift and re-selling it for bargain prices below.
Because he's a child (the original title of the film is “L'enfant d'en haut,” or “The Child From Above”), the boy is almost invisible. He can move freely among the well-off skiers without attracting much attention. So the mask, as it turns out, is a significant part of his identity. The one thing we know for sure about him is that he's not who he seems to be. And we spend the rest of the movie trying to figure him out.
Simon (Kacey Mottet Klein), a boy whose face, once we do see it, seems to be quite a bit older than the rest of him, lives in a cheap, one-bedroom apartment with his listless twentysomething sister, Louise (Lea Seydoux of “Midnight in Paris,” “Mysteries of Lisbon”), who shuffles through low-paying jobs and has a habit of disappearing with lowlifes who don't treat her terribly well. Mike (former footballer and Ken Loach star Martin Compston), a Scottish chef working at the lift restaurant, responds to Simon's situation once he learns that the kid is an orphan hustling for grocery money and not a brat trying to scrape up some cash for DVDs and video games.
When Mike asks him where he lives, Simon replies, in halting English, “Down … in a big tower.” We know exactly what he means. The movie is divided into two realms, above and below. The man-made architectural “mountain” Simon lives in is in the drab, muddy reality at the bottom of the lift, a world-spanning tram ride away from the glistening white vacationland at the top. The majestic spectacle of the snowy Alps looms over everything in the brown lowlands, making them appear even more shabby and insignificant. (Splendid work here by cinematographer Agnes Godard, known for her long association with Claire Denis.)