Mid-1700s Europe is a man’s world, so learns the title character in Mozart’s Sister, a quiet period drama.
Nannerl Mozart (Marie Féret) is the older sister of young musical prodigy Wolfgang Mozart (David Moreau) and quite talented herself. She and her brother spend their days touring Europe with their pushy stage father Leopold (Marc Barbe) and their loving mother Anna-Maria (Delphine Chuillot). The family makes its living by playing at various royal courts and the more extraordinary the children seem the bigger an attraction they may be — which is why Leopold shaves a few years off the children when he announces their ages. He is, in particular, grooming Wolfgang to be a true master — not just a whiz at the harpsichord and violin but also a composer. But Nannerl is also passionate about the violin (which Leopold says is not a proper instrument for a girl) and composing (which Leopold also discourages). And, as she’s aging, she also chafes against the binds of family duty. Nearly 16, she’s starting to think about romance and a life beyond the touring while her father seems determined to keep her around as a sidekick to her brother.
This family dynamic — having to give up dreams because of the demands of a father and brother — is all too familiar to a young girl Nannerl meets when the family stops at an Abbey near Versailles to repair their carriage. Louise of France (Lisa Féret) is one of the many daughters of the current king. She and some of her sisters were sent to the abbey as children and haven’t seen their parents in years. So the closeness of the Mozart family seems appealing to Louise. Though she doesn’t get out much, she does have a crush on a boy who is a musician and currently playing at court. Thus when the Mozarts make it to Versailles, Nannerl delivers a letter to him and along the way meets Louise’s brother, the Dauphin (Clovis Fouin), whose wife recently died after childbirth. The Dauphin is an odd cat — he likes Nannerl, for her talent and for herself, but he is also full of odd guilt about his father’s many affairs. When he is quickly engaged to a new princess of somethingerother, their relationship seems like yet another thing convention will deny Nannerl.
Which, admittedly, is a bit of a spoiler. As is this: the most interesting bit of this movie happens toward the end when Nannerl goes to the Abby to see Louise again. Louise has become a dear friend of Nannerl’s but she has also taken religious orders and is now a pious, veil-wearing nun. It’s time for them both to be resigned to their lives and take pleasure in serving God, she says. She also observes that both their lives would be significantly different if they had been born boys — both would have their brothers’ chances at earthly freedom and glory.
Which is to say that this isn’t the empowering story of a woman who went against the tide and forged her own place in the world. It’s a story of an exceptionally talented woman who had the passion for greatness but not at the expense of bucking convention. She might be a great violinist but she can’t bring herself to keep playing the violin (or to continue writing music) if it’s not what her father wants for her. It’s an exceptionally sad state of affairs for her and it brings sadness to the movie overall. But this isn’t an operatic sadness, it’s a quiet sadness. We don’t come away with a moral to the story, but more with a feeling of disappointment on behalf of Nannerl.
This quiet sense of frustration is part of what makes Mozart’s Sister feel a bit distant. (A feeling amplified even more, I’m guessing, by the fact that the movie is in French.) Just as I found myself wishing Nannerl would break convention a bit to show her father and the rest of the world what she can do, I also wished we could break through the coolness that kept the characters just out of reach, emotionally.
Mozart’s Sister offers an interesting window on the early life of a musical giant and on the society that kept another potential master from reaching the same heights. B-
Not rated. Written and directed by René Féret, Mozart’s Sister is two hours long and distributed in wide release by Music Box Films.