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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Mozart’s Sister


(Three and a Half Stars)

France: Rene Feret, 2010

Mozart’s Sister, a film often lovely to see and hear, by French writer-director Rene Feret, is the fictionalized semi-biographical tale of a remarkable girl, her extraordinary family and of the beautiful music they all made together. But it’s also a very sad story, as stories about great artists — and great artists-who-could-have-been, sometimes are. The girl’s name was Maria Anna Mozart, or “Nannerl” for short.

She, of course, was Mozart’s sister, and if you felt or wept for her brother in Amadeus or anything else (including liner notes), for his sad life and premature death and the irony of his incredible posthumous fame and stature, you may weep for her as well — for her long life, for her lost chances, and for the obliteration of her art and music.

The movie begins lyrically, with a scene that recalls the openings of both Bergman’s The Magician and Max Ophuls’ Lola Montes: the Mozart family traveling to an engagement in a nearly broken down coach through the woods. When it does break down, we’re made painfully aware of how vulnerable their existence really is, the dilemma of many artists, of how dependent Leopold is on his family and his patrons, on their world and its rules and proprieties.

Then, when the family stops at an abbey after the breakdown, accepting the hospitality of the nuns, Nannerl meets the royal daughters, who are sequestered there, and Louise de France (Lisa Feret) — a seraphic imp — immediately appoints herself her special friend. That leads later to Nannerl’s “romance” with the Dauphin (Clovis Fouin), who seemingly loves Nannerl and her music, hates his sybaritic father, the King. as imagined here, might have been a good monarch and music lover, if he simply became Nannerl’s patron, instead of what (fictitiously, of course) he so monstrously does here .

Now, everyone knows, or should, that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — who was playing keyboards at four, and composing music at five, and had become one of the greatest composers of all time by the time of his death at 36 — was one of the miracles of the history of classical music: master composer of the 21st and 23rd Piano Concertos, of the 40th Symphony, and the Clarinet Quintet and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, and the Haydn Quartets, and “The Magic Flute” and “Don Giovanni” and the “Requiem” and many, many others.

But what about Nannerl, so splendidly played in this movie, with such poise, grace and intelligence, by director Feret’s daughter Marie?

Five years older than her brother, Nannerl was a prodigy too. She played harpsichord at seven and she was Wolfgang’s accompanist through much of his career as a child musical phenomenon. And Wolfgang (played here by the amazingly cute little David Moreau) adored both Nannerl and her music. She was his childhood best friend and model, and they invented a little magic, imaginary world that they played in, of which they were king and queen, called the Kingdom of Back.

What happened to her? The movie, which is a fictionalization of Maria Anna’s life, tells some truth, mixes it with fancy. The truth largely revolves around the film’s portrayal of her warm relationship with her genius brother, and with her mother Anna Maria (Delphine Chuillot), and the more painful but powerful bond with her composer/musician/teacher father Leopold (done superbly by Marc Barbe), who dominated her life. The Mozart children owed him everything, which includes bad as well as the good in their lives. She never left him, though Wolfgang broke away, and she should have.

 The fiction mostly comes from an imagined relationship between Nannerl and two members of the French royal family: a wondrous sympathetic friendship with little Louise de France (adorably played by Lisa) and that brutal imagined romance between Nannerl and the Dauphin of France — whom Fouin turns into something suggesting a Joaquin Phoenix interpretation of a French Norman Bates. I liked these stories, and I liked the actors who played the royals. But, fictional as they are, they’re perhaps not really all that more more interesting than what actually happened to Nannerl in real life. (See below.)

 I’m not sure how I feel about those additions  — but little Lisa Feret as so marvelous as Louise, Nannerl’s small but powerful friend, that she almost tips the balance by herself.

Lisa owes a lot to her father, of course; they all do. He makes Mozart’s Sister into the kind of elegant costume drama that is sometimes a glory of French cinema (and Hollywood‘s as well), especially when someone like Ophuls or Jean-Paul Rappeneau is at the helm. Feret, an actor and director whose better-known films include The Mystery of Alexina, is a superior visual stylist, not quite in the Max Ophuls chair or row, but at least in the balcony. And he’s very good with actors, especially with his children. (Being a fine teacher is one quality he shares with Leopold Mozart.)

 Marie Feret holds the screen beautifully as Nannerl, expertly miming the music and movingly conveying her sweetness, artistry and quiet. If Lisa Feret delights us as Louise, Marie wins our hearts as Nannerl. And father Rene is on the screen as well, playing (what else?) a music professor.

 And the real Nannerl, what of her? Why aren’t we listening to her 5th Piano Concerto, or her Vespers, or her piano sonatas, or comic operas?

 Well, as Mozart’s Sister partly tells us, she was maybe too much of a prodigy, and definitely in the wrong place and time. It was the 1760s, in Salzburg. She was a female, and when she turned 18, and became of marriageable age, Leopold considered further musical pursuits unsuitable and he retired his daughter, so that she could find a good husband and start having children. He rejected her personal love choice, a teacher named Franz d’Ippold, and chose for her instead a wealthy magistrate with children of his own, named Johann Baptist Franz von Berchtold zo Sonnenburg. I’m sure her husband’s name gives a good hint of what he was like and of what her married life was like too.

In any case, she had more children, devoted herself to preserving her brother’s music and memory, and died at 78, long after him. That’s the story Mozart’s Sister doesn’t quite tell, except in the end titles.

 The movie suggests that Nannerl died poor, while other sources insist she was not impoverished, but was ill and unhappy. To be really happy though, she simply had to remember her youth. Despite the broken coaches and the endless lessons, how many other children had such a wondrous childhood?

 I’m sure she missed Wolfgang, missed their games, missed his encouragement, missed the times they performed on piano and violin before amazed audiences — missed the wonderful music they made together. And, even though the movie fudges the facts a little, it makes us miss Nannerl — and the music she wrote which was somehow lost, and the music that she never got to write at all. Her little brother was the king, but she was his queen. (In Chicago, at The Music Box Theatre.)

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon