A sumptuous period movie, Mozart’s Sister, offers a bleak and intimate look at Mozart in his early years as a child prodigy while his sister faded into his shadow. His family of four is struggling to make a living, traveling Europe by horse-drawn carriage, making appearances for the nobility. Taking center stage is the gifted, 11-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (David Moreau), but the movie’s director René Féret, who also wrote the screenplay, focuses on the elder, 14-year-old sister of the man who would later become singularly defined by the name Mozart.
An underlying sense of hopelessness coats the two-hour film. Maria Anna Mozart (Marie Féret), or “Nannerl” as she is nicknamed, quietly concedes to any challenge she is presented after trying to follow her passion for music on her own. Ultimately she is submissive and makes for quite a footnote as the older sister to the prodigious “Wolfy,” but a footnote, nonetheless.
Because the historical record is loose on her, the stories surrounding this time in her life covered by the film is a “speculative account.” After all, who in 18th century Europe would care to document any one woman’s story? Her father Leopold (Marc Barbé) sure does not. Flipping through pages of her notebook, Nannerl seems frustrated with how many pages of her book Leopold has dedicated to Wolfgang’s minuets and compositions. “I suffer my father’s preference even in my own notebook,” she tells her mother, Anna-Maria (Delphine Chuillot).
Inherently, one cannot expect much action and dynamism from the portrayal of such a woman, who knows to submit to her position while her father and brother make their mark with a music career that would become legacy. To his credit, Féret does not try to sugarcoat it, staying true to the era by keeping Nannerl’s battles small and fruitless. The drama of the story in turn becomes subdued and almost insignificant. The opulence of the set pieces even overshadows the drama. The period quality, a world of fireplaces, melting candles and quills, is so luscious it spills from the frame in almost three dimensions. The costumes are especially impressive, up there in quality with Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, but never so over-the-top. The world of Mozart’s Sister is filled with the repression of femininity and feels more grounded in the everyday drama of that era. This is indeed a truer, harsher world than Coppola’s film. The set pieces, from the real Versailles to the “humble” abbey where the young daughters of King Louis XV dwell are all magnificent and transporting.
The actors give sincere, if subdued performances, which includes the daughters of the director, the one in the title role and his younger daughter Lisa Féret as the ostracized daughter of the King Louis XV, Louise de France or “Chiffe.” “Like I’m made of Chiffon,” she tells Nannerl.
The leading sister offers more subtlety and performs quiet suffering very well. The younger Féret is a bit stiff and distant, but her performance brings a stoic, tragic air to the character, nonetheless. Left to grow up in the care of nuns at the convent, along with two of her other sisters, they are never allowed visitors from their own royal family. Chiffe’s story is the more bleak of the two plots, as she accepts her fate with hopeless resignation.
Though the drama is low-key, the film maintains an enchanting atmosphere with the snippets of the musical masterpieces that made Mozart famous as a child prodigy. There is one moment of hope for Nannerl, when the ambiguous dauphin (Clovis Fouin) gains an interest in her. He only first ever gives her a chance to share her musical ability because he meets her dressed as a man, a disguise she was ordered to don in order to deliver a letter to the son of the music master at Versailles from the smitten Chiffe. There are obvious hints to the dauphin’s homosexuality, adding another frustrated and repressed character to the mix. Though he seems a villain in the dynamics of a film where the biggest evil is the strict but stunted rules of social place he too shares a common struggle with Nannerl. But he can express his frustration with angry tantrums. Still, even after she admits to her deception, he shows affection for her. Despite her admission, he commissions her to write a piece of music for his court.
However she dresses, Nannerl remains a girl. Despite her socializing with the future king of France, her mother slaps her for keeping her family waiting up late and skipping rehearsals. Her father refuses to give her any advice on composing music, stating harmony and counterpoint are concepts beyond the minds of women. Still, she will spy in on his lessons to her little brother, and when the opportunity arises for her to finally see her music performed for the dauphin, she must again dress like a man. She maintains her disguise to participate in her public debut as a composer and her ruse will wind up backfiring in a humiliating and pathetic way.
The drama of Mozart’s Sister is based on the title character’s quiet suffering in a world far from suffrage and women’s lib. The film explores this world with reserved respect and captures 18th century Europe beyond costumes and sets. Chiffe suffers for her father’s own debauchery and Nannerl for her brother’s future. Women would have a long way to go before any would become leaders of a nation or musical wonders, and this film is a stark reminder of that while not compromising its tone as a period piece.
Mozart’s Sister has not been rated and premieres in South Florida Thursday, Oct. 20, at 7:30pm at UM’s Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables featuring a special panel discussion between the audience and distinguished members of the University and Miami Community after the film. The film then opens Friday, Oct. 21, at select theaters.
(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)