Most conventional biopics face the problem of turning a life that may have lasted 75 years into a satisfying two-hour narrative. The result is compression and oversimplification, and more fatally, the perpetuation of the false notion that our lives follow an orderly dramatic progression. One example among many is the movie Amadeus, a fun story but one that did little justice to facts and complexity as it presented its historically dubious genius-versus-hack conflict.
But, there's another Mozart biopic coming out in theaters, one that acknowledges complexity even as it invents its own version of the facts. As the title Mozart's Sister indicates, this film is about the composer's talented elder sibling, Maria Anna, known as Nannerl. But filmmaker René Féret doesn't massage what we know about how Nannerl's talents were allowed to wither, purely on account of her gender, in order to create a comforting narrative. Instead, he takes imaginative license that allows for a considerable bit of invention while still staying grounded in the reality of the period and the story's actual outcome.
While many of the facts and relationships are invented, we become immersed in the grubby reality of an 18th-century version of a traveling family of artists. Like any stage parents of present times, Léopold Mozart and his wife, Anna-Maria, have dreams of stardom for their children. At first, Nannerl's prodigious musicianship was sufficient, but when her little brother Wolfgang comes along, the attention—and crucially, the parental resources—shifts to him. Forbidden to play even a second fiddle (unladylike), Nannerl instead becomes her brother's accompanist as the Mozarts undertake a grueling three-year tour of the Continent. Some of the film's best elements are in little humanizing details—a broken axle on a country road, the excitement over an indoor toilet, Ma and Pa making love in the presence of the kids who share their cheap rented room.
The film cheerfully portrays young Wolfy as an impish, rat-tailed dolt—we believe the scene where Nannerl tells him, "Everyone says you're a genius. But I know you're really an idiot." But Wolfy is the family's meal ticket, no matter how much Nannerl yearns for her own musical realization. In the world she was born into, abstract notions of counterpoint and harmony are for men, and men only. Léopold's words to her on this point are cruel to our ears, and although Nannerl is hurt and confused, the film invents a small rebellion for her: She quits the family act, returns to Paris to take music theory classes while dressed as a man and then submits her work to the Dauphin (who is aware of her ruse), a young man quietly seething within his own prison. (Contemporary composer Marie-Jeanne Séréro wrote the Baroque stylings produced by the film's Nannerl.) That these scenes aren't convincing only reinforces the fact that Nannerl's circumscribed life permitted no real outlet.
Like its subject, Mozart's Sister is a homely family affair. René's wife, Fabienne, served as the editor, and daughter Marie Féret plays the lead role (she's pleasant and intelligent, but perhaps a bit opaque). But the film's show-stopping performance comes courtesy of yet another member of the clan, little sister Lisa Féret. She plays Louise de France, the desperately lonely yet dignified 13-year-old daughter of Louis XV, who is condemned to grow up in an abbey apart from her parents. Like Nannerl, she's suffering for her gender, but she envies her new bohemian friend her seeming freedom. And she finally makes a heartbreaking choice that nonetheless offers her a slender thread of liberty. While the relationship between the princess and the musician is invented, it's a fabrication that speaks to the truth.