Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Mozart's Sister: sharing a room with genius

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.

In 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:


  1. What an interesting movie. I saw the book last year, when I worked in a bookstore, but passed it off as another trite historical take on early modern feminism. I do feel sorry for Nannerl, though. I read an interesting book about her and the other women in Mozart's life ("Mozart's Women", aptly enough), and always thought it was a pity that she couldn't develop her talent more. If the film makes it to Germany un-dubbed, I'll go see it.

  2. @Christie The thing is, it came SO close to being a fascinating, nuanced look at female agency within a restrictive system, but I'm not sure it fully escaped the clichés of historical fiction involving early modern (proto-)feminism. The problematic use of the term "feminism" for the early modern period is, of course, another whole can of worms...! But yes, I agree: those letters from Wolfgang telling Nannerl how clever her "little songs" are and that she should do more with them are so poignant. I suspect that German dubbing would probably be kinder to the nuances of the French than the lame English subtitles, but who knows!

  3. fabulous review! I meant to comment a while ago but forgot so here it is late: It seems like the focus of the movie bears the traces of one of the *19th* century's gifts to the musical patriarchy, namely the elevation of composition above all other forms of musical achievement. The Romantic model of the composer is coincidentally the arena of music least accessible to women. The fact is there were many 18th-century women playing major roles in musical life who were seen as just as important as those of composers, but with our legacy of Heroic Author Above All we never give them any attention or credit. While Nannerl Mozart maybe *did* sacrifice her dreams, to make her emblematic of women in music in this period as the film seemingly does ignores the significant achievements of many others. A Nancy Storace biopic? I'd pay to see that, but it would be a tough sell.

  4. @Zerbinetta Thanks! And, AHA. During the film I was thinking, "Cheer up, Nannerl, you can still play other instruments and give lessons!" but had not connected this with the nineteenth-century heroic (male) composer genius paradigm thing. Aha aha. I would also go see a Nancy Storace biopic! I think we could pitch it: travel, world premieres of music, various romantic liaisons, Feisty Heroine. :)


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