Simon lives with his adult sister in the valley below a ski resort in the Valais. Every day he goes up in the cable car and steals from the tourists: food, money and ski equipment are brought back to sell to locals.
The sister (Léa Seydoux!) is a catastrophic caregiver, staggering between abusive men. Simon, though a pubescent child, seems to be the breadwinner of their relationship; he controls the cashflow, sends his big sis on trips to town for goods, and nags her for staying out too late.
The film takes place through one ski season, a turbulent one in our protagonists’ lives. Plenty more story happens, but it’s probably better to see the film as a character study of a boy than a narrative-driven piece.
Worth a watch?
Definitely. The odd narrative contrivance aside, the story and characters are fascinating, the acting is awesome, and it looks gorgeous – your eyes wolf down the images, even though their contents leave a bitter taste.
It wasn’t a great advert to get into skiing, though.
Swissness Difficulty Level: Chasseral (beginners)
Language: French, with F, D, E subtitles widely available.
Availability: It’s a recent film from a respected “Artsy European” director, featuring two bona fide stars in Léa Seydoux and Gillian Anderson, so is available from places like Amazon Prime with English subtitles. If you want to rent the DVD from the DE side of the Röstigraben, you might have to look around a few libraries till you find it!
Swissness Lab Report: White Gold
Simon has precocious knowledge of two languages: money and skiiing. In the Valais tourism ecology, these are interrelated. For him, they have set of specific, transactional meanings which help him to survive, and maintain his key relationship. But how does this reflect back on their actual, “adult” meaning?
Since your humble Swiss Me Deadly reviewer can’t ski, he did a little research (articles 1-3 below) on the overlap of winter sports and cash in this country . The following three points stood out.
1. Winter tourism is important to the Swiss economy, and essential to the mountainous cantons.
It generates more than $5.5 billion a year, and counts for 1% of Swiss GDP; this rises to over 10% for Graubünden and the Valais. In mountain regions, one Franc in five results directly or indirectly from tourism, and one employee in four works in the tourism industry.
2. Winter tourism in Switzerland is expensive compared to elsewhere.
…30% more expensive than in Austria and France. Admittedly, about 2/3 of visitors live in Switzerland and thus earn Swiss wages; but at an educated guess, within Switzerland a clear class disparity exists. For many Swiss, a skiing holiday requires significant travel expenses alongside equipment purchase or rental, and that’s before you take accommodation and food/après-ski bills into account; if you’ve got kids, those snowproof clothes will need changing regularly.
I’ve worked in state grammar schools (Gymnasium/Lycée) with a predominantly middle-class, well-off pupil set; and in commercial apprenticeship schools with teens from a less wealthy background. Come Christmas time, the former are a lot more likely to tell me they’re off skiing with their family.
The system isn’t totally skewed; many smaller regional pistes are easily accessible and have low entry fees; particularly in these regions, the authorities subsidize school skiing trips for the children. But a friend from Lausanne tells me that cuts have been made to school skiing trips following the 2008-2010 economic crisis.
3. The industry is in trouble, and existing inequalities are set to increase.
Climate change poses a huge problem to winter tourism. The ski season has been getting shorter; the zero-degree limit has risen almost 300 metres in the Swiss Alps.
This means firstly that smaller ski resorts in the pre-Alps and Jura are closing. As a consequence, kids have less chance to learn to ski, travel will get more time-consuming and expensive, and as a consequence the pool of skiiers will get smaller and more homogenous.
Secondly, as resorts turn to artificial snow for their pistes, ski lift prices will rise. As one author puts it: “In the future, the sport will only attract the wealthy.” (3)
But what has all this got to do with the film?
(Warning: minor spoilers coming. Second warning: associative analysis by an unrepentant Literature graduate hack).
L’enfant d’en haut is not a “moral message movie” in the vein of Der Verdingbub. The protagonists are anomalies, rather than typical products of a systemic crisis.
But the film does say something about how some of the wealthiest Swiss abuse their money. After all, “L’enfant d’en haut” translates as “The Child from Above”, but also means “The Child of Above” – the offspring of this place.
In the absence of a parental figure, who are Simon’s role models? One contender is the man who beats him up brutally for stealing his goggles. Another is Gillian Anderson’s wealthy tourist. Her easy manner and polite warmth lead Simon to be infatuated, but she too shows an utter lack of humanity when her material possessions are endangered. In their final scene together, she humiliates the child and ignores all the evidence that something is terribly wrong.
I think that most of all, Simon’s relationship with his sister is based on his observations of the very wealthy, yet very distanced, parents and their children. The wealthiest Swiss of Zurich’s Gold Coast stereotypically have little time for their children; they show their “love” by buying expensive gifts. A couple of times a year, during lavish holidays, they come together and make-believe they are a functioning family unit.
Simon imitates this. He also uses money in sophisticated way to manipulate his sister into giving him emotional proximity. But for someone in his position, i.e. total emotional dependency on an authority figure, this is a zero-sum game.
The most devastating line in the movie comes when Léa Seydoux, in debt to Simon, tells her little brother – “I’ll pay you back, I don’t want to owe you anything.” Simon bursts into tears. If the transactional part is cut off, their entire relationship collapses in his eyes.
So the film inverts the power structures of the dysfunctional bourgeois family which are the norm at the ski resort. It applies them to an outsider situation in which money retains a more primitive purpose. In this context, we see more easily how fucked up these power structures are.
And it shows the sheer childishness of the materialistic adults which populate Simon’s world.
(1) “The importance of ‘white gold’ to the Alpine economy”, Swissinfo.ch, here
(2) “Why working in tourism is no holiday for the Swiss”, Swissinfo.ch, here
(3) “What future for winter tourism under global warming?”, Swissinfo.ch, here