Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 17, 2011 11:29 am 
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Second fiddle to a genius brother

Nannerl was the nickname of Maria Anna Mozart, the sister of Wolfgang, four and a half years older than her extraordinary sibling. This film about her teenage years begins in 1763 during a whirlwind three-year family musical tour of Europe, and then follows Nannerl (Marie Féret)
as her life, in the film's fanciful embroidery, expands to include the French court, an independent life in Paris, a romance with the Dauphin, and then disappointment and a return to her severe father, who always puts her little brother first and won't let her play the violin -- not an instrument for girls -- or compose music -- harmony and counterpoint are mysteries too deep for a woman. Yes, this story has a feminist message, but the disappointments of its protagonist's life are too specific to seem to be simply scoring points.

Nannerl, la Soeur de Mozart begins in the thick of things, in a carriage, with what looks like a tough but intimate and exciting life. The father, Leopold (Marc Barbé), is a harsh taskmaster, but the mother, Anna Maria (Delphine Chuillot) is young and spirited, and little Wolfgang (David Moreau) is a beautiful and mischievous child.

This is a loving family. They live for music, traveling from country to country to play for royalty -- who, however, sometimes fail to remunerate them, while competition forces Leopold to lie about his children's age and take other desperate measures like having Wolfgang play blindfold and write an opera at 12. Nannerl had been the first prodigy of the family but is overshadowed now, more and more an accessory to little Wolgang, who plays violin, showing off his own compositions, with Nannerl on clavichord.

Leopold is harsh by day but a lover with his wife by night (and they all sleep in the same bedroom, so when Nannerl asks her mom how babies are made, she says, "You must be joking"). Nannerl and Wolfgang tussle and play but also make music together almost non-stop. In one scene they sing together in nightshirts and then, without dressing, rush to the nearest keyboard and beat out the composition they have just made up together. It's not clear Nannerl is a Salieri, doomed to be inferior to her brother; she almost never gets a chance to show what she might have done alone. They have one genius among them, that's for sure. But that's not so good for a sibling.

In this slow, beautiful, sad film we watch the young Mozart's older sister during a brief period when remarkable opportunities offered themselves to her and then were snatched away. She finds a royal friend, and then almost a royal lover. She tries to live independently in Paris giving music lessons and studying composition. But then when her warmest human contacts are cut off from her, she gives up and returns to her parents and devotes the rest of her life to furthering Wolfgang's career and fame, under Leopold's thumb again.

The heart of the film is what happens as a result of the cracked axle of a carriage. The family must take refuge at an abbey where it turns out the King of France has farmed out several of his daughters. One of them, Louise de France (Lisa Féret) instantly takes Nannerl as a friend. This abandoned princess is in love with a music teacher at court. She sends Nannerl to deliver a message to him at the court of Louis XV and thus, disguised as a man she meets the Dauphin (Clovis Fouin), who is entranced by her voice and her violin playing. He learns she's a woman, and a romance begins (all this the filmmaker's invention). Marie Féret's scenes with her younger sister Lisa and with Clovis Fouin are arresting and memorable beyond anything else.

The Dauphin urges Nannerl to write music for him, which she does, and he commissions a chamber orchestra to play one of her compositions with her, still disguised as a man, playing lead violin. Fené uses these invented episodes to dramatize Nannerl's lost opportunities with an admirable originality and vividness. The transformation of the independent and preternaturally mature Anne de France into a submissive nun is a shocker; so is the shy, sweet Dauphin's gradual descent into the family's perversity. History may have been twisted here, but the period itself doesn't feel violated, rather, brought to life by the odd angle of approach.

Despite a modest budget this is a handsome and authentic-looking film, thanks to the cinematography of Benjamin Echazarreta, efforts by designers of decor (Veronica Fruhbrodt, helped by permission to shoot at Versailles) and costumes (Dominique Louis. Marie-Jeanne Serero created faux-Nannerl compositions.

Mozart's Sister opened in France June 9, 2010. Reviews noted a "distanced, minimalist" approach to the personalities and period and found the film was not outstanding, but had good moments. Alain Riou of Le Nouvel Observateur wrote, "Playing the true auteur, Feret tailors events to his own story, and his own troubled childhood. The film is choppy and biased but intelligent, and contains a real poetry."

Seen and reviewed as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance March 3-13, 2011.

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