The film takes place before the Mozart family met acclaim, when Wolfgang Mozart (David Moreau) was only 11 and the family were merely travelling musicians, plying their trade in front of an array of bemused and frequently disbelieving aristocrats. Nannerl (Marie Féret, René’s daughter) is stuck in the margins, merely playing accompaniment to Wolfgang, despite the fact that she has as many, if not more talents than Wolfgang himself.
Crushed under the weight of her father’s (Marc Barbé) obvious preference for her brother, as well as his insistence that she not play the violin or compose her own music (both considered too complicated for a woman), 16-year-old Nannerl is not happy. Desperate for her own talents to be recognised and her own identity established, she begins to rebel.
Mozart’s Sister takes on many big themes - unrequited love, a search for fulfilment, abandonment, rebellion, anguish, great talent thwarted, a fight against prejudice - and renders them dull. It is historical revisionism without a tripod or a real sense of wishing for change. Nannerl is left as unknown as she was before the film started. Glumly accepting her place as a footnote in history, Nannerl, and the film itself, do not call for a reassessment as much as eulogize a dead issue.
Mozart’s Sister seems to posit the idea that behind the history of every great man, there is the story of a greater woman who was sidelined and undermined. It is a feminist tale that pointedly tells a woman’s history, not well known precisely because it is a woman’s history. However, as well intentioned as the filmmakers may be, they do deliver a film that has little of merit.
While fantastic performances, an obvious love of classical music, directorial flair and a good sense of humour have proven that the story of Wolfgang Mozart can sustain interest for almost three hours, as in Milos Forman’s terrific Amadeus, there is little of interest in René Féret’s treatment of the life of Nannerl Mozart. His realist take on the story complete with shaky camera and a lack of lighting – the only apparent reason for which is the possible unavailability of the equipment needed – is ultimately too dry and too sober.
The performances are all one-note, with largely young actors straitjacketed into period costumes and left with over-written and uninteresting dialogue. Nannerl is too reserved, a sullen girl who seems to lack a passion for anything. She may have been more talented than Mozart, but we never get the sense that music matters all that much to her. She plays begrudgingly, as if she was forced into it by her father and chose to exert her femininity and her wish for rebellion by being better than his preferred son. When, very late in the film, a music teacher says, “Pity the poor artist not driven by passion”, the camera awkwardly and pointedly zooms in on Nannerl wearing a sardonic half-smile. Feeling more like a writer’s convenience in a script that has heretofore ignored the grind of creating art, it ushers in a short sequence in which we see Nannerl composing all day long. But here, there is still no apparent love or devotion for her art. It is as if she is only talented because she is a woman. She can play, sing and compose in her sleep and, as the film shows it, probably does.
The film itself is as bland as its protagonist, adopting all the feminist clichés in the book, from that irrepressible ‘all in this together’ female connection that Nannerl has with the similarly ostracized Louise de France (Lisa Féret, another one of the director’s daughters). Of course, she will later only be able to communicate with her great friend through prison-like bars, symbolizing how trapped both women are. As well as this, she will hear her mother refer to her father as, “my husband and master”, but not before redefining her future husband as “the man I shall love” in preference to her mother’s “the man of your life.” Of course, opportunities do begin to come Nannerl’s way, but only when she dresses like a boy, a turn of events that is introduced as matter-of-factly as it is dispensed with. Mozart’s Sister comes to resemble a tract, but it is one that most of us have heard by now, especially those of us who would choose to watch a film called ‘Mozart’s Sister.’
Although the film nicely evokes the ‘reality’ behind the historical costume drama, successful as it is at showing how tiring a carriage ride would be and how dark a large, candle-lit house would be, it does keep the screen bland and uninspiring. The film also keeps things muted so that scenes that might have marked emotional high-points go by unnoticed. Similarly, the film’s end should have been, and could have been, shattering where it not for the fact that Nannerl seems about as happy or as sad as she has always been and for the fact that the material itself has been approached as dispassionately as Nannerl approaches her music.