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Mozart's Sister: Sharing a Room with Genius

By Singingscholar @singingscholar

Based on the above trailer, I suspected that René Féret's film "Nannerl, la soeur de Mozart" (U.S. release under the title "Mozart's Sister,") might be a bit predictable, even a bit cheesy. But it also seemed to promise gorgeous costumes, elegant filming, good music, and a title heroine defying early modern gender role expectations. So when it arrived in NYC this past weekend, I went to see it with a friend. In many ways, I was pleasantly surprised; the narrative was more carefully constructed and nuanced than I was expecting. And it was a lovely film to watch: the quotidian detail was nicely handled, the color palettes evocative, the acting subtle. Still, I found it less than satisfying. Its story is of course largely speculative, but as Virginia Woolf wrote at the outset of A Room of One's Own, fiction may contain more truth than fact. What I found irksome was the apparent difference between the story the film seemed to me to be telling, and the story it seemed to think it was telling.
Mozart's Sister: sharing a room with geniusIn brief, the narrative I had expected from this film was: "Mozart's sister, equally gifted, is tragically prevented by oppressive male authority figures from developing her talent, and thereby denied personal and professional fulfillment, because of her sex." Depressing, to say the least. And while, of course, it may be hard to imagine anyone the equal of Mozart... the underlying injustice is not diminished. In the event, the film had a more subtle tale to tell. In fact, it had several. Quiet and leisurely by Hollywood standards, the film spends a lot of time in carriages and cloisters and antechambers, following the Mozart family on their often-weary way from display performance to display performance. (Parenthetically, professional musicians might find this part even more depressing than I did. Be warned.) Praised and palmed off with pittances, the family is isolated and close-knit. Leopold Mozart (sensitively played by Marc Barbé) is no cardboard tyrant, but a father obviously proud of his children, affectionate and solicitous as well as strict. He also believes that it is unseemly for young women to play the violin, and that they simply aren't capable of grasping the finer points of counterpoint. Delphine Chuillot is a fond mother who simply assumes that her daughter's future happiness will be found in marriage. A scene where she discusses this with Nannerl is both sweet and uncomfortably claustrophobic.
Nannerl herself is played by Marie Féret, who is convincing as a sweet, rather dreamy girl poised awkwardly on the threshold of adolescence. Her uncertainty and inarticulacy in the face of her own attraction to the forbidden art of composition is believable and touching. There is intrigue involving the daughters of Louis XV, as well as the Dauphin (I was expecting kinkier things from the bedroom scene involving three people, a catafalque, and a harpsichord, frankly.)  But what I found most interesting was Nannerl's own journey, which in the end seemed to me to founder because of indirect, rather than direct suppression. Although she is offered the patronage of a countess, she has not been given the resources to help her imagine what she could do with it. The text superimposed on the final frames claimed that she sacrificed her dreams; I thought the film presented an equally poignant tragedy: that she hadn't been given categories of thought in which her dreams could take meaningful shape. The film has been given a limited U.S. release, expanding steadily in the coming weeks; see here for details. A nice coda of sorts to Nannerl's story is that the soundtrack did not use Mozart's music, but was composed by Marie-Jeanne Serrero for the film. Caveat: the English subtitles truncated and not infrequently distorted the French dialog. Clip below:

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