It’s not an easy crowd-pleaser like Miloš Forman’s Amadeus (1984), nor is it as deliberately odd as Paul Morrissey’s Beethoven’s Nephew (1985), but René Féret’s Mozart’s Sister invites comparisons to both. The press hand-out calls the film “a speculative account of Maria Anna ‘Nannerl’ Mozart,” which is a roundabout way of saying that the filmmaker pretty much made up everything but the historical characters—and that’s fine. Certainly, it’s René Féret’s right to do that, but I can’t get away from the sense that however well done, what we end up with is a story leading to one key scene (a scene I found more effective in another film). This isn’t to say that Mozart’s Sister isn’t worthwhile—it is—but it’s hard to overlook certain limitations about the film.
Yes, Mozart had a big sister and she was nicknamed Nannerl (played by the filmmaker’s daughter Marie Féret). It’s also long been suggested that she might have been just as talented as her more famous brother (David Moreau)—except, of course, for the fact that she was female in a society that had some very firm rules about what that meant. Like her brother, she was a brilliant (we are told) musician. Indeed, she was one-half—with young Wolfgang—of the act of musical prodigies that their father, Leopold Mozart (Marc Barbé), dragged around Europe, slowly shifting the focus to the younger (and male) musician. It’s this traveling show—and historical accounts of it—on which the idea of her thwarted career is largely based. She also composed music, but none of it survives (explained in the aforementioned key scene). Féret takes this and runs with it—though “run” might not be the best word in the case of this leisurely paced movie.
According to the film, the Mozarts’ coach cracked an axle near the abbey that happened to house Louis XV’s three youngest daughters, one of whom, Louise de France (played by another daughter of the filmmaker, Lisa Féret), strikes up an immediate and lasting friendship with Nannerl. Louise entrusts a letter to a young man, Hugues le Tourneur (Arthur Tos), the delivery of which introduces Nannerl—in the guise of a man—to the Dauphin (Clovis Fouin), who also takes an immediate liking to her in this guise. This wholly fictional idea—which is almost comic opera in nature—is probably the most successful part of the film, leading as it does to what looks at first to be a homosexual flirtation on the part of the Dauphin. In fact, that’s exactly what it is, since the Dauphin takes her to be a man. When Nannerl reveals her gender, it turns into a kind of outright romance, which takes the film on a strange tangent that is at first unfulfilling and later outright humiliating. It’s also provides far and away the film’s most compelling drama.
The bulk of the film deals with variations on what might have been had Nannerl been born a man. This is given actual voice in one of the scenes where she visits Louise de France, who has become a member of an enclosed order of nuns. It is Louise who put forth what each of them might have been but for their gender. And while it’s a telling moment, the thing that’s most memorable about it is the fact that—for all her expressed religious devotion—Louise never seems like anything other than a child playing dress-up. And I’m not at all sure that was the director’s intention.
The big moment—that key scene where Nannerl privately renounces her musical ambitions—is very similar to the scene in Ken Russell’s Mahler (1974) where Alma Mahler buries her composition—and with it her dreams—in a makeshift pencil-box coffin. But the scene here misses the big emotions—the true sense of personal tragedy—of that earlier film, and it’s the fault, I think, of the director’s whole approach to Nannerl, whose almost wholly passive performance rules out any large emotions. There’s a distance here that causes a sense of detachment, which is actually a little odd in a film that trades in speculation—and even outright legend—as opposed to fact.
Don’t misunderstand. Mozart’s Sister is a good film. It’s also a well-made film—Feret’s use of the zoom lens is more assured than we usually see in modern film—and it’s a good looking one. But as drama, it falls a little shy of the mark. Not Rated, but contains adult thematic material.