Historical biopics must be fun for filmmakers because they get to present well-known figures in a new light, while bringing their eras to life, allowing audiences to experience these stories in the way that the actual historical figures may have lived them. The only limitation is history. But what about the people who were close to the historical figure, but did not make history themselves? By telling their stories instead, filmmakers and audiences get the best of both worlds – a fictionalized history tied to the credibility of a historical figure. Mozart’s Sister offers this great combination, but doesn’t fully capitalize on it.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is one of the most famous composers of all time and his music is easily recognizable even today, though perhaps not as easily attributable. Admirers of Mozart’s music will most likely be charmed and surprised to know that he had an older sister named Maria Anna “Nannerl” (Marie Féret) who was also musically gifted. Their father (Marc Barbe) was a skilled composer in his own right and vigorously taught his children music – focusing first on Nannerl and then shifting almost entirely to Wolfgang once he displayed his ability. As the family traveled through France to play for the ruling class, Nannerl quickly discovered the restrictions imposed on her due to her gender and, more bitingly, her father’s preference for Wolfgang. Mozart’s Sister shares the freedoms that Nannerl might have explored after a chance meeting with the children of Louis XV.
The story of Mozart’s Sister is compiled from the copious accounts written by Leopold Mozart, which detailed the family’s travels and experiences. Writer/director/producer René Féret was able to craft a traditional three-act structure from these writings, so audiences won’t feel like this semi-historical drama is missing a story. On the other hand, Féret takes his time and slows the pace of the film down to near real time, which will begin taking its toll on the audience early.
The deliberate pace, however, does help to transport the audience into the film’s setting. In fact, Mozart’s Sister is hopelessly authentic, with little being done to take the grit out of the presentation. In several exchanges between Nannerl and her father, Leopold’s nose whistles slightly every time he exhales, which is distracting. In another scene, as Nannerl’s carriage rides away, a shot from Nannerl’s point of view is so jerky that the things she’s looking out at are barely recognizable. On a brighter note, the locations are stunning and need little dressing to convey the period or the opulent accommodations, which are a feast for the eyes.
The acting is unfortunately uneven throughout the cast. The older actors, like the parents in the Mozart family, are believable in their roles. Marc Barbe properly conveys a man who is driven to showcase his children’s talents so much so that he’s grown cold to them as a parent. Delphine Chuillot as Nannerl’s mother is reserved and publicly submissive to her husband, but shows warmth and humanity during private moments. Regrettably, the younger cast members come off a little stiff as they recite their lines with little expected human emotion. This is especially true with Marie Féret whose character goes through monumental changes and makes life-changing discoveries, but seems little affected by them. She barely shows any emotion, even when she sees the man that she loves with another woman for the first time. While Féret’s performance is serviceable, it lacks the kind of internalization of events that would really sell the reality of the film.
Without a doubt, the best part of Mozart’s Sister is the original and fictional music that Nannerl composes, which was written specifically for the film by Marie-Jeanne Céréro. The soundtrack is hauntingly beautiful and audiences will be hard-pressed not to simply close their eyes and enjoy the music by itself. In one scene, Nannerl sings a few measures and her listener is so moved that he has to support himself on a nearby balustrade. In these moments, audiences will definitely feel the same way.