Mozart's Sister - SideReel Review
Rene Feret’s period drama Mozart’s Sister is a marvelous work of speculative fiction -- speculative because, although a good deal of historical evidence corroborates the notion that Maria Anna "Nannerl" Mozart (1751-1829) authored her own musical compositions, none of the scrolls are currently extant, so we have no firsthand knowledge of them. As adapted from Alison Bauld’s 2005 novel of the same title, the Feret picture examines the tumultuous events during Nannerl’s adolescence that shaped and guided her adult years.
The film opens with ten-year-old Wolfgang (David Moreau) and 15-year-old Nannerl (Marie Feret) traveling through the European countryside via carriage with their parents. Recognizing the outstanding musical ability of both children (especially the genius of Wolfgang), Leopold (Marc Barbe) and Anna-Maria (Delphine Chuillot) have devoted most of their lives and energy to touring the continent as a "musical family" and entertaining various palaces. Unfortunately, Nannerl repeatedly gets held back in her abilities and roles by virtue of her gender -- she’s discouraged from performing on the violin (perceived, at the time, as a man’s instrument) and repeatedly reminded that musically inclined women can’t even begin to compete with men in the arena of composition. In defiance of this, Nannerl confides to her father that she composed pieces publicly attributed to Wolfgang. Naturally, the incredulous fellow keeps the news to himself.
The story takes an even more interesting turn when the Mozarts receive an appointment to perform at the French royal court, and due to the gender restrictions of the day, Nannerl must approach the Dauphin (Clovis Fouin) in disguise as a man. Though she soon reveals her ruse to him, he’s completely swept away by her preternatural ability as a composer, musician, and vocalist, and enables her to dazzle the court with her compositional skills, while in male drag.
Recalling John Fowles’ French Lieutenant’s Woman and other revisionist period narratives, the film takes a contemporary perspective and grafts it onto a historical framework. In terms of theme, it isn’t all that different from more contemporary-set feminist dramas such as Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain People or Barbara Loden’s Wanda, and like those films, it operates on a defeatist trajectory. We see the hope and the passion and the beauty in the female character, but she’s fighting a losing battle -- taking a quixotic stand against impossible social restraints. Everything around her is built to engender her defeat. This is very rocky, risky territory, given the fact that it could easily make the audience feel defeated and hopeless along with the main character. But, here, it really works. It stays involving for many reasons -- especially because director Feret and production designer Veronica Fruhbrodt have taken such time and care to establish a visually detailed period world; because lead actress Feret gives such an emotionally nuanced, sensitive portrayal; and because the filmmakers so convincingly and persuasively establish the gender restraints of 18th century Europe. The film isn’t perfect -- it could use more clarity, for example, in some of the narrative developments surrounding the Dauphin, and in a supporting role, Lisa Feret (the director’s daughter and the lead actress’s sister) is so hopelessly wooden and artificial that she stops the movie cold in her handful of scenes. On an emotional level, though, the picture delivers such a wallop that when Nannerl commits a final act of such extreme self-effacement that it causes her own spiritual death, the film gives the concept of tragedy a whole new meaning.