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What makes a parent encourage one child’s talent and squelch another’s? In the case of Maria Anna “Nannerl” Mozart, the reason for her discouragement was simple: gender. Given that she was the older sibling of one of the world’s most cherished creative geniuses, that makes her a powerful emblem of extinguished female gifts, and as a result the subject of a number of fictional musings.
The latest of these, writer-director René Féret’s richly imagined Mozart’s Sister, is a handsome and achingly sad period piece, a finely observed portrait of cast-aside dreams. The drama is quieter and more chaste than the similarly themed Camille Claudel, but no less haunting. Word of mouth will be strong for this art-house release.
Mozart’s Sister is a family affair on two levels. Féret’s wife is his editor, his son his assistant director, and he has cast his daughters in two key roles (for which they’re exceptionally well suited). Onscreen, one of the fascinating elements of the story is its depiction of the dynamics of a family that spends most of its time on the road: the shared rooms, the intimacies both lighthearted and discomforting, and, for a prodigy born female in 18th-century Europe, the nuclear unit as refuge and trap.
At 14 going on 15, Nannerl (Marie Féret) is already old enough to say “I used to be” with a keen sense of mourning and complaint. She’s referring to her brief life as a violin player, a passion cut short when her father (Marc Barbé) deemed it an instrument unfit for a girl. As depicted here, Leopold Mozart is a stage parent for the ages: loving, competitive, exacting as he carts his two performing children on a tour of the Continent’s royal courts. With Wolfgang (David Moreau) an ever more bankable star — he’s 11, but Leopold says he’s 10 to up the wow factor — Nannerl is increasingly relegated to the role of accompanist, at the keyboard of the acceptable harpsichord.
Féret’s screenplay imagines friendships between Nannerl and two of Louis XV’s offspring, both drawn to her musical talent as well as her sympathetic gentleness and intelligence. The princess Louise (Lisa Féret) is a year younger than Nannerl, an old soul in a petite adolescent body, weighed down not just by the fussy coiffure and heavy silks of her position but by the protocol of the court and the dictates of the cardinal, which place her in an abbey far from her family. Louise’s older brother, the Dauphin (Clovis Fouin), is a shy young widower who commissions work from Nannerl — in direct opposition to her father’s belief that composition is beyond the ken of a female.
The film’s feminist perceptions derive naturally from period-specific situations and never feel imposed on the characters. Marie Féret is a vision of profound strength and joyful agitation as a young woman whose need to create art is a life-affirming, convention-defying fever. Nannerl insists that the notes she hears are her own, but it’s information Leopold refuses to process. (Wolfgang, on the other hand, knows it to be true.) Her mother (Delphine Chuillot) sees the injustice of her circumstances, but can imagine no solution other than to cheer her daughter onto the path of marriage and motherhood.
In cramped family quarters and in the surrounding grandeur (Féret was permitted to film at Versailles), cinematographer Benjamin Echazarreta’s sensitive camerawork captures every nuanced emotion. The production design by Veronica Fruhbrodt is sumptuous but not overpowering. Essential to the protagonist’s voice are Marie-Jeanne Serero’s elegant compositions; none of Nannerl Mozart’s work survives.
Opens: Friday, Aug. 19 (Music Box Films)
Production companies: A Les Films Alyne production with the participation of the Centre National du Cinéma et de l’Image Animée and the support of Région Ile de France, Région Limousin and in partnership with the Centre National du Cinéma
Cast: Marie Féret, Marc Barbé, Delphine Chuillot, David Moreau, Clovis Fouin, Lisa Féret
Screenwriter-director-producer: René Féret
Producers: René Féret
Director of photography: Benjamin Echazarreta
Production designer: Veronica Fruhbrodt
Music: Marie-Jeanne Serero
Costume designer: Dominique Louis
Editor: Fabienne Féret
No MPAA rating, 120 minutes
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