Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Mozart’s Sister: A Music Room of One’s Own

Leopold Mozart was not much of a nurturer, so maybe the family really had musical genes. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s prodigious musical talents are well documented and dramatized. However, there is reason to believe his older sister Maria Anna “Nannerl” Mozart was also a precocious performer and composer in her own right. There simply was not a socially acceptable musical outlet for a proper young woman in Eighteenth Century European society, as viewers learn in no uncertain terms in René Féret’s Mozart’s Sister (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Nannerl Mozart misses playing violin. It just was not considered appropriate for the fairer sex in her era. Instead, she is relegated to accompanying her brother on piano, harpsichord, and vocals. Old Leopold has already identified Wolfgang as the family’s future, capitalizing on the novelty of his youth (though for Féret, he is only a minor supporting character). By contrast, his daughter is getting a bit too old to astound the crowned heads of Europe. She still proves useful though when she befriends Louise de France, one of Louis XV’s surplus daughters.

Begging off life on the road with her family, the Mozart daughter’s friendship with the cloistered princess also brings her into the orbit of the Dauphin, the brother Louise had yet to meet. A music lover completely lacking talent himself, the Dauphin gave her a focus for her unfulfilled musical ambitions, essentially using her as his ghost-writer.

Starting with some of Leopold Mozart’s letters and filling in the considerable gaps with some generous guess work, Féret vividly conveys the erratic hand-to-mouth nature of the Mozart family’s itinerant lifestyle. Yet, perhaps his most compelling invention is the assuredly fictional relationship between the Dauphin and the unheralded Mozart. While Féret’s sympathies clearly and consistently lie with Nannerl Mozart and her frustrated creative drive, his narrative arc is oddly flat. Frankly, the rather anti-climatic ending will leave many viewers asking: “is that really it?”

With several scenes shot on-location at Versailles, Sister recreates the world of the mid 1700’s with appropriate stately grandeur. To her credit, Marie-Jeanne Séréro convincingly rises to the challenge of composing Nannerl Mozart’s compositions, but the prominence of the harpsichord might challenge the ears of some causal classical listeners (those who never range far from canonical Beethoven and W.A. Mozart).

While undeniably poised, Marie Féret (yes, the director’s daughter) comes across a bit bloodless and reserved as Mozart. In contrast, his younger daughter Lisa is completely engaging and even rather haunting as the Princess Louise. Resembling something of a French Joaquin Phoenix, Clovis Fouin also makes a strange but strong impression as the royally flawed Dauphin.

An exquisite period production, but a frosty affair as a character drama, Sister relies heavily on its sights and sounds. Like Mozart’s sister, the Féret sisters are quite gifted, but a more muscular narrative would have better served their efforts. Lovely to look at, but strictly an interesting supplement rather than a serious challenger to Miloš Forman’s Amadeus, Mozart’s Sister opens this Friday (8/19) in New York at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center uptown and the Cinema Village downtown.