Success stories in the theater world, like in music, film and every other form of art, are predicated first and foremost on one thing: circumstance. All of Rodger’s or Hammerstein’s talent and drive wouldn’t mean bupkis if they hadn’t been born men in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. You spend enough time thinking about history’s greatest also-rans – those who could’ve brought generations untold riches, if only they hadn’t been born at that time, in that place, to that person – and your head starts to hurt a bit.
“Mozart’s Sister” wants us to consider just such a case, and though the specifics of its quasi-historical postulations may be fabrication, the underlying thesis is grounded in cold, hard fact (which is more than can be said for another certain recent release.) Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s older sister Maria Anna, called “Nannerl” by those closest to her (including Wolfgang himself), was a musical prodigy in her own right with a burning desire to compose and perform her own work.
Sadly, Nannerl was handicapped with two X chromosomes in the 18th century, when women had no business playing the violin or composing, or doing much of anything beyond supporting their male counterparts. Surely there were many other talented yet unrealized girls of the era, but Nannerl’s family name is what has ingrained her as one of history’s most famous, and saddest, brushed-asides.
So enamored was French writer-director-actor René Féret with Nannerl’s story that not only did he make a movie about her failed endeavors, but he also roped his daughter Marie into playing the titular character. There’s a bit of irony here, as the Nannerl in Féret’s script becomes increasingly frustrated with the roles that her own father Leopold (Marc Barbé) shoehorns her into: namely, piano and harpsichord, to accompany Wolfgang’s manly violin as their father parades them around Europe like a circus act. But despite this growing tension, Nannerl ultimately strives to adhere to her father’s wishes, a theme that emerges in troubling clarity as the film progresses.
Like “Amadeus,” another faux history that existed mainly on the fringes of Mozart’s life, this film fabricates story for the sake of making a larger point about art. Through a series of incidents, the somewhat deep-voiced Nannerl poses as a boy in order to gain an audience with the Royal Dauphin of France (Clovis Fouin), who takes a liking to her and is awfully understanding when she reveals her true identity. He commissions her to write pieces for him as they start a relationship that never even progresses far enough to be called “budding.”
“Mozart’s Sister” is a cross-breed of two types of historical film: the mini-biopic, which operates under the theory that you learn a lot more about your subject by studying one seemingly insignificant period of their life in hyper-close range (“Nowhere Boy,” “My Week With Marilyn”); and the alternate history, which is seeing a resurgence as of late with the likes of this and “Anonymous.” But “Sister” is cut from a far less inflammatory cloth, to its benefit. The insinuation that Nannerl could be just as gifted as, if not more than, her younger brother (a mostly invisible David Moreau) is left for the audience to deduce. Likewise, the sexism of the era is only sparingly addressed by the characters, yet it hangs over the proceedings like a giant tarp blotting out the sun.
It’s unfortunate that Marie Féret is so bland in her role. She has wide eyes and an inquisitive face that draws you in, but lacks a sufficient emotional range to properly convey the gravity of her situation. Nannerl’s true passion, her entire future, is at stake over the course of the few months we see onscreen, but you’d think in her low-key spats with her father that her main point of contention is having to go to bed without supper. Maybe understatement is what the director was going for – the pace of the film doesn’t exactly scream urgency. But Nannerl’s impassiveness creates a hurdle of its own: between her and an audience straining to be as sympathetic as possible.
Toward the end of the film, once Nannerl has been removed from the musical picture, Leopold casually suggests that his son compose an opera, a lengthy one, in order to extend the game of one-upsmanship against his rival child prodigies. It’s an aside that means a lot more to those familiar with Wolfgang’s later accomplishments than it does to the Mozart family at that moment, but it nevertheless underscores something crucial about artistry: simple acts of encouragement or discouragement can make all the difference in the world. This earnest message, though muddled by the film’s flavorless script and sleepy direction, has the potential to resonate. With any luck, it can prevent future Nannerls from wallowing in the constraints of time and place.
“Mozart’s Sister” plays at the E Street Cinema through Thursday, Nov 10, 2011.
Mozart’s Sister Web site