The French biodrama “Mozart’s Sister” profiles, with a mix of fact, respectable speculation and sheer fantasy, the other Mozart musical prodigy — Wolfgang’s older sibling, Nannerl — and presents a picture of the personal experiences and social attitudes that might have led to this gifted young woman’s withdrawal from a career in music.
Written and directed by Rene Féret (“L’Histoire de Paul”), the film looks like a lavish costume drama and sometimes lets contemporary attitudes undermine its credibility as a period biopic. But it is primarily an intimate, down-to-earth serving of 18th-century musical-family life. And it sparkles as such.
Depicted as a passionate but obedient artistic spirit rather than a melodramatic tempest, Nannerl Mozart (played by Marie Féret, the director’s daughter) is nearly 15 when we meet her and is part of a family that travels through Europe in a rickety coach and performs for royal sorts.
Once an impressive violinist and budding composer, Nannerl is now forbidden from developing those talents by her stage father, Leopold (Marc Barbe), who deems such pursuits unwomanly. Instead, she sings and plays the harpsichord, accompanying her four-years-younger wunderkind brother, “Wolfy” (David Moreau).
The story follows Nannerl, coming-of-age style, through public and private joys and frustrations, with two offspring of France’s Louis XV figuring in.
Nannerl becomes friends with 13-year-old Princess Louise (Lisa Féret, also a daughter of the director) and strikes emotional chords in Louise’s widowed 17-year-old brother (Clovis Fouin). When visiting the latter, Nannerl dresses as a boy. This results in music opportunities unavailable to women.
The film suffers credibility-wise when dealing with the gender-inequality issue head-on. The cross-dressing scenes, while amusing, are hard to buy. When Louise says that if she and Nannerl were men, the world would be theirs, she sounds like a modern-day screenwriter.
But when Féret simply rides the everyday ripples of his characters’ lives — and that’s lots of the time — his heroine’s predicament comes cross powerfully and the film triumphs as an atmospheric look at the 1760s musical life and as a quietly vibrant portrait of a joyously music-loving super-talent suppressed.
Avoiding overblown melodrama, Féret achieves impact with realistic, human moments: the shabby treatment the musicians receive from aristocrat hosts; Leopold’s coolly delivered but devastating criticism of his daughter’s sonatas; and, entertainingly, the Mozart prodigies engaging in a pillow fight at their stuffy abbey lodgings.
The film also benefits from solid performances, with Marie Féret radiant in the central role. In sync with her father’s directorial tone, she delivers passion but keeps much of it simmering, subsurface.
The music presented as the compositions of Nannerl Mozart — which, in real life, no longer exist — is by contemporary composer Marie-Jeanne Serero.
Starring Marie Féret, Marc Barbe, Lisa Féret, Clovis Fouin
Written and directed by Rene Féret
Running time 2 hours