It’s hard to watch René Féret’s historical drama Mozart’s Sister without thinking of the Oscar-winning 1984 biopic Amadeus, which uses Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a springboard to consider the sad case of those who can recognize genius, but can’t replicate it. Mozart’s Sister, meanwhile, uses the composer’s life as a springboard to study the lot of European women in the 18th century. As a girl, Maria Anna Mozart performed for royalty alongside her younger brother and even composed her own music, just like Wolfgang. But as Maria—nicknamed “Nannerl”—grew into adolescence, her parents steered her toward meeting a nice, rich man and becoming a wife and mother.
Féret’s daughter Marie plays Nannerl, a 15-year-old with the sense of maturity and gawkiness common to adolescents, no matter the era. Mozart’s Sister is largely concerned with Nannerl’s friendships with two of Louis XV’s children: the 13-year-old Louise de France, whom she meets in an abbey, and the Dauphin, with whom she shares her passion for composition. Unlike the king’s family, who never get to see each other, Nannerl spends nearly 24 hours a day cooped up with her brother and her parents in such close quarters that they can’t keep secrets. Contrast that with Louise, who shows Nannerl a hidden book listing practices banned by the church (“described indecently”), and to the Dauphin, who whispers anecdotes about his father’s infidelity.
Féret is very much concerned with these characters’ earthy everyday lives. One of the first shots of the film is of Nannerl urinating in the snow, and later we see her watching her parents have sex, and listening to her mother use a bidet for the first time. The movie also deals with the economic realities of the Mozart family, who travel in high society, but receive only trinkets as payment for their concerts. What’s missing from Mozart’s Sister, though, is the kind of fervor that made Amadeus so memorable. Féret’s film looks lovely, is acted well, and successfully humanizes famous folk from long ago. (Marc Barbé is especially effective as Léopold Mozart, who cruelly tells his daughter that she hasn’t the brain to write music, yet also plays his violin sweetly for her when she’s sick.) But when Nannerl tells her father, “I hear notes, my own notes, in my head, but I don’t know how to write them down,” her words are an indictment of a society that marginalizes women, but not deeply moving as a personal plea.