Film review: Mozart’s sister

1 August 2011

Written by: Erdem Koc

Mozart’s Sister (Nannerl, le soeur de Mozart in French, with subtitles) is based on the story of Maria Anna Mozart, the older sister of the famous composer Wolfgang Mozart. Nicknamed Nannerl by her family, she is believed to have been a talented musician in her own right.

When the film opens, the Mozart children are in their teens and the family is travelling a snowy road on their way to perform at the court of King Louis XIV. It is clear that this journey is the latest of many on a tour of Europe, as their father (Marc Barbé) pursues his dream of making his young son into a musical sensation.

A broken axle leads the family unexpectedly to an isolated convent, where Nannerl (Marie Féret) becomes friends with Louise (Lisa Féret), the youngest daughter of the King. Louise, trapped by her royal status, is eager, while Nannerl is quiet and reserved – quite unlike the girl we see fooling on the harpsichord with her brother.

The conflict at the heart of the film lies in Nannerl’s exclusion from the opportunity and recognition that is accorded her brother. She is an accomplished musician in her own right, yet is forced to play second fiddle to Wolfgang (David Moreau). She is forbidden from playing the violin or from composing — her father flatly refuses to acknowledge any quality in her music whatsoever.

Nannerl finds an unexpected outlet thanks to her friendship with Louise, which leads to a meeting with Louise’s brother, the Dauphin and heir to the throne of France (Clovis Fouin). Nannerl, dressed as a boy, plays and sings for the Dauphin, who is smitten both by the music and by the young ‘man’ before him.

The Dauphin gives Nannerl the chance to compose and offers her some much-needed recognition for her talent. But the scenes with the Dauphin are full of unease, as Nannerl navigates a manipulative social world of which she has little understanding.

This sense of unease builds from Nannerl’s first meeting with Louise. The film gets off to a slow start, but it carefully builds its characters and the world they inhabit. It is beautiful to both the ear and the eye, and for me this added to the sense of foreboding: I was afraid that at any moment this calm exterior would be shattered. But the music in itself is wonderful, and a reminder of the pure beauty of a lone violin.

The movie captures most delightfully the way in which music is a part of the lives of Nannerl and Wolfgang. It is not a chore, but a joy. From this comes Nannerl’s longing to play and to compose, and the sense of tortured, constrained creativity. It is let loose briefly, but then constrained once again, this time apparently by choice. But choice is a fluid concept, and Nannerl’s options, like those of her friend Louise, are clearly limited from the outset.

Mozart’s Sister is the story of yet another woman who has been treated as a mere footnote in the story of one of the most famous men in history.

One can only wonder what else she, and women like her, might have produced, had their creativity been given the opportunity it deserved.

Suzannah Marshall Macbeth is a Master of Global Communications student at La Trobe University and is a former editorial member of upstart. She blogs at equineocean and you can follow her on Twitter: @equineocean.