Mozart’s Sister delicately explores how the soon-to-be-immortal composer’s sister lived in the wrong era— and in the wrong gender. Director Réne Féret’s thoughtful, nuanced character study features a family both ordinary and extraordinary. Parents Anna Maria and Leopold—whose love of music rubbed off on his children—travel throughout Europe as chaperones for their music-making children: remarkable pre-teen prodigy Wolfgang and skilled teenaged singer and harpsichordist Nannerl.
The film opens with the Mozart family on its way to Versailles to perform at the French court in 1766. After their carriage breaks down and is in need of repair, they spend a few days at a convent, where Nannerl befriends the king’s three youngest daughters, who have been squirreled away there as infants. The youngest, roughly the same age as Nannerl, does not even remember her parents. The fourteen-year-old Louise de France (Lisa Féret, another daughter of the director) becomes quite close to Nannerl, and asks her to carry a note to the son of the music master, who recently visited the convent. Conveniently, he will also be performing at Versailles at the same time as the Mozarts.
Because the Dauphin, son and heir of the King, is mourning a sister who died in childbirth, Nannerl must disguise herself in boy’s clothes at court since tradition dictates that the Dauphin cannot see an unknown female while mourning. She becomes fast friends with the heir while in disguise, and takes advantage of her freedom, composing music and playing the violin for the Dauphin. (Her father has forbidden her to do both. Composing, he believes, is beyond the capabilities of most, especially women.)
This fairly weak middle section, which Féret seems to have added to provide a conventional and potential romantic conflict between Nannerl and the Dauphin, does little more than pad Mozart’s Sister to two hours. Much more convincing is his exploration of the Mozart family as an ongoing carnival sideshow for the royal courts of Europe and the constraints on all four of them, particularly the children.
Unlike the idiot savant in Amadeus—the heavy-handed but popular drama that showed how unfair it was that genius resided in an imbecilic Mozart while the intelligent Salieri was damned to mediocrity—young Mozart in this film is a normal 10 year old with a precocious genius. However, he is catered to in every way at the expense of his older sister, yet his relationship with Nannerl remains close. They play together as any siblings would when not performing or practicing their original compositions.
Happily, Nannerl has not been turned into a stock pre-feminist symbol. That Féret cast his daughter in the title role could be seen as mere nepotism, but Marie Féret is utterly winning, her eyes speaking volumes about her station in life as an intelligent and talented young woman who will never be able to pursue a music career despite her gift for it.
Despite its lovingly recreated milieu of 18th century drawing rooms (including filming inside Versailles), Mozart’s Sister is ultimately the story of the disappointments that are part of family life. Although Nannerl is aware of her place in this society, she feels ill-equipped to do what’s expected of her. She exasperatingly tells her mother: “I don’t like cooking. Who would marry me? All I can do is sing and play.”
In the next and final scene, the family is in its carriage leaving Paris, and she hears her father excitedly discussing with her brother the full-length opera Wolfgang will soon compose (“Mr. Composer,” Leopold proudly labels his son). The camera remains on Nannerl as she slowly absorbs their words, knowing that her life will soon change once her brother’s musical talent separates him from his contemporaries.
As her sad eyes stare into space, titles inform us that Nannerl was married at age 32 to a man 20 years her senior and inherited five stepchildren. She spent the last years of her life collecting her beloved brother’s compositions for posterity, remaining as loyal to his memory as she was to him when he was alive, before dying at 78, blind and poor.