[Film Review] The Bronte Sisters (1979)

The Bronte Sisters poster

English Title: The Bronte Sisters
Original Title: Les soeurs Brontë
Year: 1979
Country: France
Language: French
Genre: Biography, Drama
Director: André Téchiné
Writers:
Pascal Bonitzer
André Téchiné
Jean Gruault
Cinematography: Bruno Nuytten
Cast:
Isabelle Adjani
Marie-France Pisier
Isabelle Huppert
Pascal Greggory
Hélène Surgère
Patrick Magee
Jean Sorel
Alice Sapritch
Xavier Depraz
Roland Bertin
Adrian Brine
Julian Curry
Renee Goddard
Rating: 7.5/10

The Bronte Sisters 1979

Premiered in Cannes and competing for Palme d’Or, Téchiné’s elusive biopic about the world-famous British literature siblings met with a cold shoulder from both critics and its audience, its reputation has been reviving through time, a Blu-Ray release is a timely step and gives a full-blown flair to this artistic project.

Starring Pisier, Adjani and Huppert, three distinctly beautiful French actresses as Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë respectively, and casting a then unknown Greggory as their brother Branwell, in fact, the film could be more aptly renamed as “BRANWELL BRONTË AND HIS THREE SISTERS”, because his story occupies a great chunk of the narrative. If one had done some background check beforehand, one would know that three of the four siblings were struck by early death, survived only by Charlotte and their father Reverend Patrick Brontë (played by the Irish veteran Magee), so death foregrounds itself as a sombre motif in the contexts, starting with their aunt Elizabeth (a wayward presence from the singular-looking Sapritch), tragic events ensue and render an elegiac sheen of pathos so astute that it permeates into the bleak surroundings and strikes spectators hard.

From the outlook of a language purist or a British loyalist, a Francophone adaptation is something of a travesty, only caters to Francophiles, which might explain its tepid reception at the first place, but Téchiné’s aesthetic technique is so astonishingly eloquent, faithfully depicts the plight of intellectual women in Victorian era and knowingly nitpicks the snobbery of the aristocracy, taps into its locale’s unique heath topography aided by breathtaking camerawork from DP Bruno Nuytten (Adjani’s then partner), an immediate analogy off the top of my head is Andrea Arnold’s outlandish offering of WUTHERING HEIGHTS (2011).

Branwell, the only male heir in the family, is a spoilt child, juggling between poetry and painting, his talent is strangled by a failed affaire du coeur with a married woman Ms. Robinson (Surgère, braves herself to a mismatch with a man much younger and immature than her), Greggory’s effete physique, emotionally clingy affectation takes the challenge roundly. But it is the trio of actresses what our hearts hanker after, the two Isabelle, both in the acme of their youth, Ajani’s Emily is a hard-bitten dissenter of romance and love, of fame and material trappings, even in her dying days, she draws the line at modern medicine and craves for a natural cure, she is iron-willed and portrayed as an archetype of modern feminism, which also lies the assets of WUTHERING HEIGHTS. Anne, the youngest of them, is dwarfed by her sisters in her work, seems to be a diffident, observant gal, but Huppert embodies herself with somewhat mature sensitivity, which faintly counterbalances her youthfulness.

In all fairness, it is the late Ms. Pisier, whose restrained but deeply affecting presentation of Charlotte, leaves the most memorable print on Téchiné’s handsomely manufactured adaptation, meanwhile, the attendant score, an eclectic melange of classical music from Tancredi, Rossini and Schumann, runs fluently and channels the emotional upheaval of the fairly rambling plot, until a tranquil finale where some peace finally can be found under the glossiness of fame and success.

Oscar 1979  The Bronte Sisters

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