Hilary Hahn, Hélène Grimaud, Dawn Upshaw, Sarah Hicks, Anne-Sophie Mutter, Alison Balsom … the list of female luminaries in classical music stretches endlessly. But there was a time in the history of classical music when most women would have been discouraged — if not excluded outright — from pursuing a musical career.
Mozart’s Sister, a 2010 film by French director René Féret, explores one such story. Distributed by Chicago-based Music Box Films, Mozart’s Sister gets released on DVD in the United States today.
Mozart’s Sister re-imagines the story of Wolfgang’s elder sister, Marie-Anne, familiarly known as Nannerl (and played by director Féret’s daughter, Marie Féret). The film is loosely based on the Mozart family’s 1770s visit to the royal court of France. Nannerl is known to have accompanied her younger brother in performances, and historic correspondence suggests Nannerl may have even composed music herself. Sadly, none of her compositions are known to exist today; in Mozart’s Sister, writer/director Féret attempts to answer why that may be.
One explanation Féret offers is the sexism endemic to the 18th century. In a moving scene, Leopold Mozart (Marc Barbé), the father and music teacher of Wolfgang and Nannerl, offers composition lessons to his son but refuses his daughter’s request for instruction. “You must know the rules of harmony and counterpoint,” Leopold tells her dismissively. “These are beyond most people, especially women.”
Despite her father’s discouragement, the teenage Nannerl can’t ignore her inexorable urge to compose; director Féret even suggests some of Wolfgang’s works were actually penned by her. Féret also hazards a heartbreaking supposition as to why Nannerl’s manuscripts have not survived. Nannerl’s best friend in the film, a royal princess, offers scant consolation when she posits, “Imagine how different our destinies would have been had we been boys … We would both reign.”
Ultimately, the film is about a teenager struggling with her identity and her role in life in the face of the realities that surround her, which places Mozart’s Sister on similar thematic ground as 2010’s Winter’s Bone. Certainly Nannerl enjoys much more love and security than Winter’s Bone protagonist Ree, but her circumstances are no less crushing.
Variety described Mozart’s Sister as “a treat for classical music lovers and cinephiles alike.” Indeed, film fans will likely enjoy the period costumes and ornate sets (much of the film was shot on location at the Palace of Versailles).
For classical music lovers, the original music by Marie-Jeanne Séréro — who bravely accepted the task of imagining how Nannerl Mozart’s compositions may have sounded — is certainly beguiling. And soprano Morgane Collomb, a student at the prestigious Académie Vocale de France, supplied the singing voice for actress Marie Féret. But the vocal dubs are obvious, as are the clearly pantomimed music-performance scenes. For a film so steeped in music, it’s regrettable the musical sequences may elicit winces from classical aficionados.
Despite that vital shortcoming, Féret tells a compelling story that leaves viewers musing on the life and talents of Nannerl Mozart … and what might have been.