‘Mozart’s Sister’ opens Friday, September 9th, at the Music Box Theater.
There’s a lot to like about René Féret’s Mozart’s Sister (Nannerl, la soeur de Mozart) (France, 2010). The circumstances surrounding her life are a pretty sturdy framework upon which one can hang a number of historical, and contemporary, concerns – the hypocrisies of European dynastic culture, the divisions of class and sex created thereof, and how true free will was usurped, especially for women, by these cultural constraints. Nannerl’s ‘proper place’ is enforced by Mozart pére, and it is not behind a violin, or composing – women don’t do that. There’s a fair amount of conjecture that Nannerl (a family nickname – she was born Maria Anna), while not the miracle of musicianship her young performing partner and brother Wolfgang obviously was, may have been, as a musician and composer, in his same lofty league. But as soon as she started approaching a marriageable age, the options of her continuing with that career slowly but surely evaporated. Her family knew that, the family’s patrons knew that, and, summarily, Nannerl resigned herself to that.
Féret has chosen to fictionalize some aspects of Nannerl’s life in order to further examine these issues; while many will take issue with that, it really didn’t bother me in the long run. In the film, she’s primarily the young Wolfgang’s accompanist, a skilled keyboardist and singer; but she’s also a more-than-capable violinist, and seems to possess impressive compositional skills as well. It is, in fact, true that the Mozart family embarked on a grueling tour of continental Europe while Nannerl was 11-15 years old, and Wolfgang was 7-9 years old. She meets Louise-Élizabeth de France, the daughter of Louis XV, whom has been ensconced in the Abbey at Fontevraud with her younger sisters, Sophie and Victoire, by the Cardinal de Fleury; resources at Versailles are almost exclusively in the service of educating and protecting Louis de France, Louis XV’s last surviving heir. The Mozart family has already been invited to perform at Versailles, but Louise gives her an additional task – deliver an intimate billet-doux to Hugues de Tourneur, the son of Louis de France’s music master, on her behalf. To accomplish this, she must don male drag – Hugues is with the dauphin, the heir, and Louis de France can’t be in the presence of an unknown female. Hugues excuses himself to read the letter, and Louis and Nannerl (in her male guise) hit it off famously. When, eventually, she reveals herself to be female, Louis is doubly delighted. Later, he commissions a minuet for violin and orchestra from her, which she must deliver, and perform, in drag.
Emboldened by her successes at Versailles, she strikes out on her own, composing and giving lessons in Paris. But Louis de France is then promised in marriage to Maria-Josepha of Saxony by Louis XV, and he must end, regretfully but brutally, any association with Nannerl. Heartbroken, she rejoins her family, and abandons her own career for the sake of the family’s continued success.
It’s a splendid story, even if it’s flagrantly ahistorical. Her friendships in the film, with Louise and Louis de France (who later became King Louis XVI) couldn’t remotely be as intimate as Féret depicts, if they occurred at all. Nonetheless, they’re good signifiers of how little control many young adults had over their fates due to their families, whether commoners or royalty, and the culture at the time. Louise, in truth, was raised in Versailles – only Sophie and Victoire were consigned to the abbey. Nannerl and Louise could never have met there. Therefore Louise’s intrigue with Hugues de Tourneur, and Nannerl delivering the letter, enabling her to meet Louis, is, I suspect, entirely fictional. There’s second-hand evidence that Nannerl composed some pieces, primarily with the family, but nothing on paper exists today, not even in preserved family notebooks. The film later submits that Nannerl herself destroyed the work, but no one really knows. It’s also practically impossible that the Mozart family would have allowed the fifteen-year-old Nannerl to live alone in Paris, giving lessons and composing, even under the auspices of Madame Van Eyck. My own homework is superficial, but I need to emphasize that Féret takes these liberties for many right reasons. It’s genuinely instructive to view the lot of talented artistic women through history – the imposed limitations they struggled with are good indicators of prejudices we should actively avoid today. Nannerl wasn’t a rebel or iconoclast – she pursued what she was good at as far as she could, but when met with cultural obstacles, she always graciously deferred. It’s her tact, her devotion to her family, and her sacrifices to what she truly believed was the greater good that are the most memorable things we take away from the film, her immense talent notwithstanding.
Féret, a pretty fair actor himself, has elicited solid performances from his cast. Marie Féret, his daughter, creates a terrific balance between Nannerl’s burgeoning musical aspirations and her responsibilities to her family. Isabelle Adjani has an entire catalogue of these immensely-creative-yet-put-upon women (‘Story Of Adele H.,’ ‘Camille Claudel,’ ‘Queen Margot’), but Marie Féret eschews the overt externals of Adjani’s approach to splendid effect. Neither rebel nor pushover, she brings real gravity to every scene she’s in, which covers most of the film. Marc Barbé and Delphine Chuillet bring scrupulous character detail to their roles as Leopold and Anna-Maria, the Mozart parents. Clovis Fouin, as Louis de France, is effortlessly believable as a dauphin far too young to rule, yet perfectly capable of it despite the circumstances.
As a director, though, Féret falls short. He’s great with the actors, and he’s good with individual scenes, both narratively and visually. But there’s really no sense of visual flow or rhythm; the film is an artful patchwork, full of awkward transitions and abrupt editing. And he’s indifferent to how his actors interact with space – there’s little compositional difference between Madame Van Eyck’s spacious salons in Paris, the small hotel rooms they occupy on their travels, or their performing rooms at Versailles. The lighting, by itself, isn’t enough. There’s just not enough spatial contrast or competing sense of scale to the environments for us to have a clear sense of where we really are scene-to-scene.
Despite Féret’s mise-en-scene missteps, ‘Mozart’s Sister’ ends up being a pretty satisfying film. The characters are engaging, the story becomes larger than the sum of its parts, and we draw real parallels to our own modern lives through Féret’s commitment to his own vision. I recommend it.