“Nannerl, la soeur de Mozart”, or “Nannerl, Mozart’s Sister” by veteran French director René Féret–a fascinating, if not entirely satisfying, meditation on a woman, previously regarded as an incidental footnote to a legend–has in the past few years, in large part to the growing influence of feminist revisionism, increasingly come to represent, as with the astronomer Agora, or the 17th century nun, Juana Inés de la Cruz, a dramatic example of patriarchal oppression suppressing an exceptionally gifted individual who had the misfortune of being a woman in a society obtusely opposed to women living beyond the circumscribed roles assigned to them.
Indeed, in the last decade, Mozart’s older sister, Maria Anna, nicknamed “Nannerl”, has been the subject of no less than four books, including three fictional biographies, that portray her as frustrated talent who could have been her brother’s equal were it not for her parent’s, especially her father’s, unquestioning demand that she adhere with the culture’s gender norms. That a movie would follow these books is almost inevitable. However, the problematic factor, for historians as well as dramatists, is that actual information about the extent of Nannerl’s talents and aspirations is very limited.
In this context, it would have been very tempting, in the manner of Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus”, to engage in wildly manipulative melodrama based on scant historical material. The very first scene, which shows the family members urinating in a snowy forest while their carriage is being repaired, leads one to wonder if the director intends to resort to a aesthetic shock treatment in the manner of a Buñuel or Polanski in order to make a point.
Commendably, however, the filmmaker is more careful to subtly suggest the growing frustration of his main subject as her younger brother begins, in large part because of her father’s unreflective preference for a male over female prodigy, to supersede her as the star talent in their family’s touring musical act. There is little in the way of outright protestations on Nannerl’s behalf, even when her father tells her that she is not allowed to play the violin because such is regarded as unfeminine, or that she can’t have a musical education, despite her obvious talent at piano, voice, and harpsichord.
The 15 year-old Nannerl portrayed by Marie Féret, the director’s daughter, doesn’t even register much outrage in her facial expressions. Yet, in the movie’s one major engagement with dramatic license, when the family is for a time accepted as into court of Louis XV as in-house musicians, Nannerl is bold enough to disguise herself as a boy in order to get close to his son, Louis, Dauphin of France, in order to find somebody who can validate her musical aptitude. Out of disguise, her presence in the court also provokes a friendship and even a degree of infatuation on behalf of the Dauphin’s younger sister, portrayed by Lisa Féret, the director’s other daughter.
Otherwise, Nannerl discreetly attempts to listen in on the instruction her father is providing for his son, but is routinely caught and rejected. At other times, Nannerl quietly observes how her father virtually ignores her for the sake of his son in his diary entries. Féret does suggest, without stating it outright, that she might have been responsible for some of the childhood compositions that brought Mozart such early fame.
Alas, we will never really know, and Féret is honest enough to indicate that Nannerl finally did subdue, with little resistance, her creative potential for the sake of what was expected of her as a woman–in doing the film does not quite become tragic in the manner of the Joan of Arc legend. What remains is a carefully presented tableaux, with detailed observations not only about the sexual politics of Europe in a stage of its history, but about art and artists.