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For Your Consideration: 'Mozart's Sister'

In the 1760s Leopold Mozart took his two musically talented children on a grand tour of European courts. Everyone heard them play: roving 18th-century historian Charles Burney, among others, wrote of the prodigious feats of the young Wolfgang, in particular. For indeed, encouraged by his father, the younger child excelled, in performance and composition, over the course of the family's travels, as biographer Maynard Solomon has shown in his indispensable biography of Mozart.

French actor and director René Féret, whose films up to now are likely not familiar to American audiences, has taken the childhood of the Mozart siblings as the basis for his mostly fictional film Mozart's Sister (released as Nannerl, la sœur de Mozart in France, last year). It is a strange little film, with the screenplay also by Féret, in that it ignores most of the interesting details of the life of Maria Anna (Nannerl) Mozart, the composer's older sister -- some of these biographical matters are listed as text at the film's conclusion -- to focus instead on the family's visit to Versailles, an episode that is elaborated into something much more important than it actually was. The Mozarts, who all speak French and are played by French actors, are stopped on their journey when the axle of their coach breaks. Taking refuge at a convent, Nannerl (Marie Féret, the director's daughter) becomes friendly with three of the daughters of King Louis XV, sent there for their education. Nannerl is sent with a letter from one of the sisters to the young man she loves, back at court.

Since the Dauphin, the girl's older brother (an enigmatic Clovis Fouin), is in mourning for the death of his young wife, Nannerl pretends to be a man when she delivers the letter to the Dauphin's friend. The Dauphin is taken by the musical talents of the young man and continues to support her inclinations -- even toward playing the violin and composing music, pursuits her severe father (a stringent Marc Barbé) discourages -- even after he learns her true identity. Leopold Mozart's favoritism for his son (the charmingly impish David Moreau) over his equally talented daughter -- tacitly supported by his wife (played by the lovely Delphine Chuillot) -- is symbolized in the movie by Nannerl's music notebook, in which Leopold notates music by Wolfgang. This is a rare moment of historicity in the film, as the music book is based on Nannerl's Notenbuch, a document in the library of the Internationale Stiftung Mozarteum in Salzburg, in which Wolfgang's youthful compositions did indeed take up his sister's pages. Alan Tyson, in his magisterial study of the Mozart autograph scores, attempted to reconstruct the Notenbuch, since many of the Wolfgang pages were sold or given away by Nannerl before she died.

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For all of the film's beautiful visual and aural detail -- gorgeous period costumes, scenes actually shot on the grounds and in the château of Versailles, historical instruments, and ravishing musical performances all around, including newly composed pieces in Nannerl's imagined style by Marie-Jeanne Serero -- the film is mostly fantasy. Louis XV's youngest daughter, Louise Marie (played with mock solemnity by Lisa Féret, also the director's daughter), was indeed raised at the Abbey of Fontevraud, with two of her sisters, and she did indeed become a Carmelite nun, but she was fifteen years older than Nannerl and had already returned to Versailles before Nannerl was born. The Dauphin, who becomes obsessed with Nannerl in the movie, had already been married twice before Nannerl was born. The tag line in the trailer, positioning the movie as the "true story of Mozart's sister," is a bald-faced lie.

Not that this interferes with one's enjoyment of the film at all. It is a visually lush and engaging film, and it does get to the heart of the puzzle of Nannerl in its own odd way. She was devoted to her father and to her brother, seeming to accept her fate of being sidelined and eventually married. The film's fictional episode serves, if nothing else, as a reminder of how family obligations -- for prince and musician's daughter alike -- were so much stronger in this period of history. A whole family team from the Féret clan is listed in the credits, in various behind-the-scenes functions as well as on screen, so one can see how Féret père saw a little bit of himself in Leopold Mozart, the paterfamilias of a creative clan.

Mozart's Sister is playing at the Landmark E Street Cinema and other area theaters.


Anonymous said...

Wish the historical films were true. Although it did get me to read about her REAL life. But now I know it is so made up I just can't be bothered to finish the movie. I want to learn something not just look at pretty dresses and scenery when I watch historical movies based on real life characters, yes ofcourse with some artistic license but not so far from the truth as Mozart's sister.

Charles T. Downey said...

Alas, too true. I still enjoyed it, but only as fantasy.

Anonymous said...

So far from the truth that I just don't feel like watching the last half of the movie. I wish these historical films about real characters wouldn't just create pure fiction! I suffer through French subtitles to try and LEARN something in these historical films. Yes sure, I understand some artistic license but this should not be allowed to even use her name its so contrived....but it did get me to read about her REAL life which would make a great film!