Leopold Mozart and his wife bred a prodigious talent — a beautiful child whom they nurtured into a gifted keyboardist, violinist, vocalist, and budding composer. And then they had another child: a boy named Wolfgang.
Mozart's Sister focuses on first-born Maria Anna, known to her family as Nannerl, five years older than Wolfgang and — as veteran French writer-director René Féret recounts in his fact-based but fictionalized movie — as much a musical prodigy as her baby brother. But Nannerl was born female in 18th-century Europe, and in this lackluster telling, that was enough to ensure her a permanent position deep in Wolfgang's shadow.
Féret opens with the Mozart family crammed into a carriage and bumping down a muddy, wintry road. Leopold (Marc Barbé) drags his family between the courts of the continent to present concerts by his precocious children. Fourteen-year-old Nannerl (Marie Féret, the director's daughter) and 10-year-old Wolfgang (David Moreau) seem resigned to it; it appears to be all they know. A fateful carriage breakdown soon lands them at an abbey that happens to house the three youngest daughters of the French king, including 13-year-old Louise (Lisa Féret, another of the director's children).
She and Nannerl strike up a friendship, which puts Nannerl on the path toward meeting the Dauphin (Clovis Fouin), heir to the French throne. Dressed as a young male courtier to avoid scandal, Nannerl soon becomes an intimate of her future king. She must navigate blossoming puberty while making her way forward as a composer, and she must somehow resolve her growing and complicated mutual attachment with the Dauphin.
It's the stuff of costume melodrama, and to his credit, René Féret works hard against that. Mozart's Sister appears to have been shot entirely with hand-held cameras, the operators jostling through the doorways of modest lodgings and whip-panning through dialogue scenes, which helps drive back period stuffiness. The director also takes pains to capture the rugged conditions that underlay the powdered wigs and courtly manners. A rest stop for the Mozart women involves lifting their skirts and peeing at the side of the road, and when Nannerl delivers a recital at the abbey, you can see her breath as she sings.
If only the rest of the movie thrived on such deftness and subtlety. Barbé's Leopold is never presented as a villain. But his tacit suppression of Nannerl's advancement as a musician and composer is never seriously questioned. Her relationship with Fouin's overacted Dauphin, on the other hand, seems needlessly overheated to the point of irrationality.
What Mozart's Sister seems to need most is an animating force in the lead role, to make the film's inconsistencies immaterial, and Marie Féret does not quite deliver. With her dark eyes and long, elegant nose, she is the very likeness of a court portrait of the age, but her Nannerl is tentative and inchoate. That may be accurate for your average teenager of either gender, but with little of her passion or ambition coming through, it's difficult to care much whether or not she fulfills them.