Once upon a time (two years ago), there were four siblings, all artists. One wanted to host a family reunion, another wanted to make a horror film, and a third was down for whatever so long so he’d get to compose the R&B soundtrack. The result is Sister, a “film conceived as dance” featuring dancers Sarah, Isabel, and Ligia Manuela Lewis, with live music from their brother, George Lewis Jr. of Twin Shadow.
What it means to conceive one medium as another is not generally self-evident. But, inspired by Quad II, Samuel Beckett’s short play for television that also functioned as a ballet for four performers, the siblings began with black-and-white diagrammatic sketches. After mapping the action—medium one—in a 12-hour frenzy, the three sisters immediately danced the nonstop, 24-hour performance—medium two—progressively lathering themselves into a zombie-like stupor that was documented in real time on film—medium three. In the performance, though not in life, the fugue states yield a string of murders.
Set in an abandoned water-purification-factory-turned-domicile deep in a German forest, Sister sounds like a mannered Blair Witch Project. but really the plot is borrowed from Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, in which two sisters who coldly bide their time as their third sister dies must endure her resurrection. In Sister, each quashed sibling reappears undead and ready to kill again. It’s a metaphor for the process of collaboration, which the sisters say is a horror in itself and involves its own version of killing: a friend pretending to be another sibling onscreen didn’t even make the film’s final cut, for instance. And the horror is only exacerbated in a family collaboration where there’s the recognition that, as the sisters put it, “what’s strange is that it’s not strange to have the feeling that you’d like to kill your sister.”
Emotionally, though, the pitch of the violence doesn’t hold up, even at its most serious. A woman searching a pantry to find a bottle of poisonous spirits manufactured by a company named “Faust” is ridiculously rendered kaput by a flying teapot. There’s an antagonism, similarly, between gestures that are deliberately crisp, albeit banal, and the murders, which are typically silly, slapdash, and intentionally fake. Two sisters together smoking cigarettes from start to finish without any cinematic cuts is almost cause for applause, but when one proceeds to smother the other with a patio pillow in less time than it takes for a long drag, it’s pure melodrama.
Although the film flouts most modern dance conventions, there is enough dancerly marginalia interspersed in the mayhem to sustain interest, like when a sister wakes from napping, dazedly fluffs her hair, lifts each leg aloft in a pretty bent suspension with an ease only a dancer can muster, and holds it there to impassively put on her socks and boots. Bless those moments and their quiet power.