Films that centre around the trials and tribulations of cancer patients number in the hundreds, and whilst there isn't much new in Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond's 'My Little Sister', the focus on the titular Lisa nonetheless results in a raw and emotional piece of cinema. What it may lack in original ideas it certainly makes up for with a well-constructed and sensitive approach to the battle of survival.
Lisa, played expertly by German actress Nina Hoss ('Phoenix'), would give anything to protect her twin brother Sven (Lars Eidinger, 'High Life'), who has been diagnosed with cancer and must fight to keep his sense of being alive. Sven is a successful theatre actor at the famous Berlin Schaubühne, and under the illusion of recovery, fights with every breath to get back onto the stage to star in the upcoming production of Hamlet. Lisa, a successful playwright herself, not only understands Sven's desires, but pushes him and all those around him to support the cause.
Currently living in Switzerland with her husband and two children, Lisa returns to her childhood home in order to set Sven up with their mother (Marthe Keller, 'Marathon Man') to care for and protect him. However, it soon becomes obvious that this will simply not work out, as the environment of their childhood home becomes like a broken vacuum, sucking the warmth and nurturing care one would expect from a mother, instead leaving behind a trail of tension and disapproval. Sven is instead invited to stay with Lisa and her family in the snowy alpine region to recuperate, hoping to get back onto his feet, and onto the stage - for the show must go on.
Lisa has given Sven her bone marrow, her blood, and now her home and undivided attention. She wants to give him everything, but it is the aforementioned focus that will ultimately test her own sense of self, as audiences witness her life begin to implode and crumble under the duress. It's through Lisa's actions that Chuat and Reymond explore the necessary depths of energy and strength to remain true to one's self - a difficult task at the best of times. Whilst she clearly used to be a playwright at the top of her game, moving to Switzerland for her husband's job has put that chapter of her life on hold, albeit from a purely emotional and mental perspective. She has lost her joie de vivre - even if it takes Sven's illness to realise that - but through his battle of survival, Lisa is able to navigate her inner strength and invite the process of introspection.
Chuat and Reymond have known each other for many years, and this clearly is not the first time they have worked together, as they managed to craft a beautiful, naturalistic portrait of grief. There is a concise and singular vision portrayed onto the screen, with thoughtful production and exceptional performances building an altogether moving film. The vast, cold and desolate surrounds are no accident, with minimal score and often handheld close-ups really playing up the pain and realism of their condition.
There is a concise and singular vision portrayed onto the screen, with thoughtful production and exceptional performances building an altogether moving film.
An acting masterclass is on display from all angles, with Hoss taking on most of the heavy lifting. Well-known Swiss actor and opera director Keller is just as impressive, offsetting the intensity of the film as the disinterested - and often disheartening - mother. It's not so much that she is the comic relief, but rather that she offers a different outlook. She chooses not to accept the impending grief, opting instead to leave the pain behind and turn the other way, never daring to look Sven in the eye or even talk to him. The bulk of the cast has a theatrical background, and it allows the film to breathe while attempting the fuller and more emotionally heavy scenes.
'My Little Sister' is certainly harrowing at times, never shying away from the expected trauma of a terminal illness, but it is the constant nurturing of Lisa that really gives this film the weight it needs. For all of the films that focus on cancer, there just aren't that many from the carer's perspective, and even fewer told through the eyes of a sibling. There are literary and classical references woven throughout, and while often they are too on the nose and take the audience out of focus, they are still a clever device that allows Chuat and Reymond to achieve their goal. For an emotional, moving and sensitive narrative, 'My Little Sister' generally hits the right notes, and even when it doesn't, the calibre of performances make it a worthwhile viewing experience.