‘Mozart’s Sister’ Explores the Whys and What-ifs

The film Mozart’s Sister doesn’t open with titles that read, “Based on actual events”, but it well could have. Written and directed by prolific French filmmaker René Féret, Mozart’s Sister imagines the life-shaping circumstances during the teen years of Maria Anna Mozart — familiarly known as Nannerl — the elder sister of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Féret’s story is well founded in fact. The Mozart family, led by paterfamilias Leopold, traveled to the various courts of Europe, wherein the talented Mozart children would perform in attempt to impress royalty and earn commissions. Archival correspondence suggests Nannerl may have also composed music, but none of her compositions survive. And that’s where Féret’s creativity really takes hold as he explores the potential reasons Nannerl’s talents are not widely celebrated today.

One explanation Féret offers is that patriarchy and sexism kept Nannerl (played by Féret’s daughter, Marie Féret) from pursuing music. In a moving scene, Leopold Mozart (Marc Barbé) offers composition lessons to his son Wolfgang (David Moreau) but refuses his daughter’s request for instruction. “You must know the rules of harmony and counterpoint,” Leopold tells Nannerl dismissively. “These are beyond most people, especially women.”

Despite her father’s discouragement, the teenage Nannerl can’t ignore the inner voice that compels her to create music. Nannerl’s musical acumen eventually captures the attention of the Dauphin of France (Clovis Fouin), although notably, she is only able to gain access to him when dressed as a young man. The gender theme reappears later in the film, when Nannerl furtively attends lectures at the Académie de Musique in male attire. A frustrated Nannerl later receives scant consolation from her best friend in the film, Princess Louise de France (Lisa Féret), who posits, “Imagine how different our destinies would have been had we been boys … We would both reign.”

At its heart, the film is about a teenager getting to grips with her identity and her place in life within the context of the realities that surround her, which places Mozart’s Sister on similar thematic ground as 2010’s Winter’s Bone. Certainly Nannerl enjoys levels of love and security that Winter’s Bone protagonist Ree could only dream of, but her circumstances are no less crushing. Marie Féret is truly convincing in this role, as her character vacillates between wide-eyed optimism and browbeaten resignation.

As Leopold, Barbé plays the role with a gentle balance of intensity and heart; it’s clear Leopold loves both his children, but he is powerless to flout society’s conventions. Anna Maria Mozart is played by Delphine Chuillot, and the Mozarts’ relationship comes across as loving, if even slightly ahead of its time. David Moreau plays the young Wolfgang with a petulance that helps increase the audience’s fondness for and identification with his sister Nannerl.

Filmed largely on location at the Palace of Versailles and at the 13th-century Abbey de Valloires, Mozart’s Sister is a visual feast. It’s clear that careful attention was paid to historical details such as period costumes and horse-drawn carriages.

Regrettably, for a film so heavily steeped in music, it is the scenes involving musical performance that prove the film’s biggest disappointment. Although Marie Féret’s singing voice is provided by talented soprano Morgane Collomb, a student at the prestigious Académie Vocale de France, the voice overdubs are all too evident. And with rare exception, whenever a character plays the harpsichord, his or her hands are never seen; in fact, the director of photography typically opts for a medium shot, with the actor — dutifully bobbing his or her head in time with the music — cropped just above the elbows. Scenes involving violins are similarly, and obviously, pantomimed.

The resulting visuals unfortunately distract from the film’s beautiful music, which, it should be pointed out, was composed expressly for this film by Marie-Jeanne Séréro — who bravely accepted the task of imagining how Nannerl Mozart’s original compositions may have sounded.

The DVD is distributed in the US by Chicago-based Music Box Films, whose other titles include Bride Flight, Mysteries of Lisbon and the entire Swedish-language Lisbeth Salander trilogy. Although the Mozart’s Sister DVD doesn’t contain any extra features (a director interview or “making of” featurette would have been nice inclusions), that is compensated for by an accompanying soundtrack CD that contains 24 original tracks by Séréro.

Today, the world of classical music is filled with female luminaries: Hilary Hahn, Hélène Grimaud, Sarah Hicks, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Dawn Upshaw, Alison Balsom … the list goes on and on. Sadly, we’ll never know the extent of what Nannerl Mozart had to offer the world of music, but for the 120 minutes of Mozart’s Sister, René Féret dares to wonder.

RATING 6 / 10