Review: 'Mozart's Sister' (Nannerl, la soeur de Mozart)

Marie Féret as Nannerl Mozart (Music Box Films)
Marie Féret as Nannerl Mozart (Music Box Films)

Ever heard of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s sister Maria Anna, affectionately known as Nannerl? Me neither. And, in the context of filmmaker René Féret’s movie, ‘Mozart’s Sister,’ this should come as no surprise.

Nannerl, it develops, played second fiddle (and harpsichord!) to her younger male sibling during the exhaustive road trips undertaken by their father Leopold to showcase Wolfy’s remarkable talents. The family lived an itinerant seat-of-the-pantaloons lifestyle while Leopold (portrayed in the film by Marc Barbé) spared no effort to procure deep-pockets patronage for his musically precocious son.

But what of the potentially no less impressive talents of Nannerl (Marie Féret, carrying the film with a likeable and complex performance)? Under social prejudices of the day, women were considered to be unsuited to the artistic rigors of composition, and incapable of virtuosity on such expressive instruments as the violin.

And here is the springboard for René Féret’s film story (which, incidentally, comes across as a Féret family project when one scans the credits, with no fewer than four family members listed amongst the cast and crew) — if Nannerl’s creative talents had been cultivated, rather than squashed, what wonderful works might have resulted?

A chance encounter in a backwoods abbey finds Nannerl striking up a friendship with a daughter of the king of France (Lisa Féret, as Louise), resulting in a fortuitous introduction to Louis, the young Dauphin (Clovis Fouin, brooding and intense), once the Mozart family reaches Paris.

The script sets up an exceptional opportunity for the appealing Marie Féret to showcase her acting chops, given that Louis is not allowed to receive female visitors — something to do with the conditions of his mourning over the loss of a brother. (Must be a French royalty thing.) In any case, a confidante finds a way for Nannerl to access the Dauphin by having her impersonate a young man. She will re-employ this useful Hilary Swank device on numerous occasions during her visits to the future king.

[Who, by the by, should have seen through the cross dressing once his visitor proved capable of hitting high C during a vocal demonstration.]

Louis does, at least, note something unusual about his lissome visitor: “He” is honest and open in “his” interactions with the presumptive monarch, in contrast to other men in Louis’ experience, who — he says — behave like “puppets which I activate by levers.”

And thus is born a lasting, if episodic, friendship, which deepens in complexity as secrets are revealed and circumstances intervene.

Filmmaker Féret’s two hour French language film (with English subtitles) has a distinctively melancholy air, supported by a visual palette of amber-hued, candle-lit interiors (credit cinematographer Benjamín Echazarreta). Since history records nothing about the sister of the renowned Austrian composer marrying into French royalty, we can intuit how that fictionalized relationship will end; likewise, no known compositions attributed to Maria Anna Mozart survive, and thus the pieces she creates in the film at the behest of Louis — against her father’s expressed wishes — are likewise ill-fated.

Tragically, Nannerl’s great musical triumph in the film comes during a private performance of one of her compositions — and she is only permitted to attend in the guise of a man.

Author! Author!

‘Mozart’s Sister’ opens today at the Landmark Magnolia in Dallas.

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