A female musical prodigy struggles against 18th-century sexism in uneven biopic
Published: September 28, 2011
Directed by René Féret
Leopold Mozart and his wife Anna-Maria bred a prodigious talent, a beautiful child who they nurtured into a gifted keyboardist, violinist, vocalist, and budding composer. And then they had another child, a boy named Wolfgang. Mozart’s Sister focuses on first-born Maria Anna, known to her family as Nannerl, five years older than Wolfgang and, as veteran French writer/director René Féret recounts in his fact-based-but-fictionalized new film, as much a musical prodigy as her baby brother. But Nannerl was born female in 18th-century Europe, and in this lackluster telling, that was enough to ensure her a permanent position deep in Wolfgang’s shadow.
Féret opens with the Mozart family crammed into a carriage and bumping down a muddy, wintry road. Leopold (Marc Barbé), a musician and composer talented enough to know that his primary asset is his talented brood, drags his family hither and yon between the courts of the continent to present concerts by his precocious children. Fourteen-year-old Nannerl (Marie Féret, the director’s daughter) and 10-year-old Wolfgang (David Moreau) seem resigned to it, at worst—it appears to be all they know. A fateful carriage breakdown soon lands them at an abbey that happens to house the three youngest daughters of the French king, including 13-year-old Louise (Lisa Féret, another of the director’s children).
The semi-cloistered Louise and the only slightly less isolated Nannerl strike up a friendship, which puts Nannerl on the path toward meeting the Dauphin (Clovis Fouin), heir to the French throne. Dressed as a young male courtier to avoid scandal, Nannerl soon becomes an intimate of her future king. She must navigate blossoming puberty while somehow making her way forward as a composer against her father’s wishes—she is female, after all, and thus he believes cannot possibly understand or ultimately benefit from the composition lessons he lavishes on Wolfgang—and somehow resolve her growing and complicated mutual attachment with the Dauphin.
It is the stuff of costume melodrama, and to his credit, René Féret works hard against that. Mozart’s Sister appears to have been shot entirely with hand-held cameras, the operators jostling through the doorways of modest lodgings and whip-panning through dialogue scenes, which helps drive back period stuffiness. For a film about musicians, the soundtrack boasts surprisingly little score, adding to the vérité feel. The director also takes pains to capture the rugged conditions that underlay the powdered wigs and courtly manners of even the highest levels of European society at the time. A rest stop for the Mozart women involves lifting their skirts and peeing in the snow at the side of the road. When Nannerl delivers a vocal recital at the abbey, you can see her breath as she sings. Parisian drinking water must be boiled, any now-inconsequential childhood illness could be fatal, and death in childbirth is common.
If only the rest of Mozart’s Sister thrived on such deftness and subtly. Barbé’s Leopold is never presented as a villain; in fact, the time the director spends with the family in their coach and their shared, borrowed apartments adds to the film’s intimate feel. But neither is his tacit suppression of Nannerl’s advancement as a musician and composer ever seriously questioned, and her passivity is taken for granted. Her relationship with Fouin’s overacted Dauphin, on the other hand, seems needlessly overheated to the point of irrationality. And paralleling Nannerl’s plight with that of Louise, a hapless child-woman boxed in by her gender and social status and a willing prisoner behind the bars of a convent rather than a dungeon, comes to feel heavy-handed.
What René Féret’s account seems to need most is an animating force in the lead role, to make Mozart’s Sister’s inconsistencies immaterial, and Marie Féret does not quite deliver. With her dark eyes and long, elegant nose, she is the very likeness of a court portrait of the age, but her Nannerl is tentative and inchoate. That may be accurate for your average teenager of either gender, but with little of her passion or ambition coming through, it’s difficult to care much whether or not she fulfills them. ?
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