Plato said, “What is honoured in a country will be cultivated there.” Of the many things to which he referred, undoubtedly creativity springs to mind. The historical examples are endless – the thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment; the Italian Renaissance painters; and relevant here, the 18th century German composers. Perhaps Plato should have added the following caveat to his statement: “but for men only!” René Féret’s Nannerl, la sœur de Mozart is both a speculative account of the early life of Maria Anna ‘Nannerl’ Mozart, and a fascinating and rapturous examination of genius and gender.

The title of the film alone speaks to the treatment of female talent – la sœur (the sister) de Mozart. Nannerl is represented by ownership, by relegation and connection to an established male figure. As a female, she is denied agency, self-representation, and ultimately, a voice. Her attempts at breaching the walls imposed upon her by her gender are thwarted every time characters subtly – and not-so-subtly – reassert the dominant masculinity of the era and simultaneously suppress female expression. The final shot of Nannerl in the film is in tragic opposition to how we see her at the beginning – at first, the Mozart family is travelling across Europe by carriage; Nannerl is exuberant and playful with her younger brother. The final shot of the film depicts a Nannerl who is subdued and resigned to her fate, as echoes of father Leopold Mozart’s plans for his prodigious son to write his first opera at age 12 resonate.

Nannerl’s künstlerroman throughout the film is also paralleled by the young daughter Louise of the King of France whom she befriends. The young princess is mischievous and vibrantly youthful in opulent royal silks when they meet, and the two become close. The final time they meet, they face each other from opposites of a gate, as Louise speaks to Nannerl from the confines of a convent, clothed in modest and dull habit. She, too, seems resigned to her fate, saying sadly, “If only God had made us our brothers.”

The script further dissects the idea of gender in all forms, flirting with Shakespearean (à la Twelfth Night) homoeroticism. Nannerl is disguised as a pageboy when she is introduced to the young Dauphin, a quirkily intense and changeable sort who possesses a morbid fascination with death and forms a close and unlikely bond with Nannerl-the-pageboy, commissioning her for a symphony. Even after she reveals herself to him, he is unfazed, and indeed, is the only person who fully encourages Nannerl’s talent to flourish, and they form a relationship that dances on the cusp of romance, though not obtusely. The tragedy of their differences in station comes to fruition soon enough in pseudo-Marxist-feminist style though, as the Dauphin is unhappily married to another.

In true French cinematic style, the film is unhurried and unglamorous. The costumes and settings are authentic to the ostentation of the 18th century without being pretentious. Candlelight and natural daylight fill the corners of royal apartments and stony abbey walls. Marie Feret as Nannerl gives an honest and understated performance; perfectly depicting Nannerl’s attenuated frustration against her situation. Although young Wolfgang appears onscreen occasionally, Feret is careful not to let him overshadow Nannerl, and their sibling relationship is sweet and unresentful.

The tragedy of the story is that perhaps there really was no difference between the two Mozart children. It was the constant diminishment of Nannerl’s desire of expressions that determined their divergent fates – Wolfgang, one of the greatest composers in the world; Nannerl, who spent the remainder of her life supporting her brother, her own tremendous talent forgotten in the sheet music of history. Nannerl’s stymied acceptance of her destiny culminates in a scene reminiscent of Ken Russell’s Mahler, in which she literally and figuratively burns her compositions. The obvious symbolism here not need be labored upon, but is driven home all the same. It is a sobering reminder of the gender disparity of the era (not that it is completely rectified today…), and the nature of overshadowed genius. Perhaps now when you hear “Mozart”, you will think to ask, “Which one?”