Mozart’s Sister

July 15, 2011
Mozart's Sister

After sitting through Sofia Coppola’s disastrous Marie Antoinette many viewers might feel they never want to see another periwig. The French, however, are addicted to these costume dramas which hark back to days of imperial glory and quicksilver repartée. Add a little Baroque music and the recipe is irresistible.

So when a French film called Mozart’s Sister comes along, with an endorsement from Variety, that reads: “A stunner…” the impulse is to sit back and enjoy what promises to be a sumptuous piece of musical cinema. The only problem is that director, writer and producer, Renè Fèret, has made a very different kind of film.

It may be partly a function of the budget, but Mozart’s Sister, is a movie that makes one intensely aware that the late Baroque period was pre-electrical. Most of the story takes place by candlelight, moon light, or no light. Even the Palace of Versailles, where much of the action was shot, looks about as resplendent as the Bates Motel.

This is one of those films that is less of a story than a character study, but that character is sketchy. We know very little about Maria Anna Mozart (1751-1829), who went by the nickname of Nannerl. She was five years older than Wolfgang Amadeus, and was considered a musical prodigy from the age of seven. Until her late teens she was part of the travelling entourage that took the Mozart family around the courts of Europe. Nannerl would play the harpsichord and sing while her brother played the violin.

Upon reaching marriagable age she was dropped from the act, in accordance with the attitudes of the day. It is believed that she also wrote music, but not a single note has come down to posterity.

Throughout her life, Nannerl appears to have remained under the thumb of her dominant father, Leopold. She would eventually marry the man of his choice, not hers, and even leave a son with him so he could try his hand at producing another musical genius. She became estranged from her brother, but spent her old age looking after his legacy.

It was a sad and obscure life for a woman of ability. Nannerl is a classic victim of old-style patriarchal attitudes, ripe for feminist rehabilitation. Because we have such scanty information, fictional accounts of her life are now more numerous than biographies.

Rène Fèret continues this trend in a film that looks at those years when Nannerl reaches puberty and her role in the family act comes to an end. He spices up the story with a fanciful meeting with the three youngest daughters of Louis XV, sequestered in an abbey; and an encounter with the Daupin, Louis-Auguste – the future Louis XVI.

Aside from the unhappy distinction of being the only French monarch to be executed, Louis has gone down in history as a peculiar character – shy, sheltered, and paranoid. His arranged marriage to Marie Antoinette remained unconsummated for seven years. In Clovis Fouin’s portrayal he comes across as a young man terrified that his father’s lecherous habits are embedded in his DNA. He stares at Nannerl like the big bad wolf, and can barely keep his royal fingers to himself, but he sublimates his urges into a fascination for her musical skills.

The Dauphin encourages Nannerl to compose music for him, and she responds with a splendid concerto. One of the curiosities of this film is that all the music was composed in the Baroque manner by Marie-Jeanne Séréro, who had to imagine what Nannerl might have written. It is a pastiche, but a very capable one.

The story may sound romantic, but the execution is lacklustre. Marie Fèret plods through the role of Nannerl with the animation of someone undertaking a necessary but wearisome task. Even stranger is the young princess, Louise, (Lisa Fèret), who recites her lines as if reading from an auto-cue. “Let us not allow protocol to hamper our burgeoning friendship,” she intones.

By this stage you may have detected a remarkable echo in the names of the director and the actors. This is because Mozart’s Sister is a family affair. Marie and Lisa are Fèret’s daughters. His son Julien plays a small role, and works as assistant director; while his wife, Fabienne, is the film editor.

Fèret seems to be as much a domestic tyrant as Leopold Mozart, as he has his own ideas about how dialogue should be delivered. He writes about “the psychological absence of playing”, the “not-play”, “a true slowness”, “establishing a distance between what is said and what is felt.”  This means we should not hold his daughters solely responsible for the wooden way they pronounce their lines. How can you attempt method acting when your father the director is testing out a pet theory?

Perhaps père Fèret should have taken his cue from a bon mot he puts in the mouth of a French music instructor: “Pity the poor artist not driven by passion.” Pity the poor actress forced to play a romantic heroine as if she were shelf-stacking at the supermarket.

Published by the Australian Financial Review, July 9, 2011

France. Rated PG, 120 minutes.