E1 Entertainment // 1979 // 120 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // September 4th, 2013
Heathcliff, it's me, your Cathy, I've come home...I'm so cold...let me in your window...
We said it before but it bears repeating -- the Brontes remain one of the most amazing families in all of literature. Consider the fact that sisters Emily and Charlotte created the literary lynchpins Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, respectively, or that sister Anne was herself a writer, contributing lesser works such as Agnes Gray and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall to the clan's creative canon. Of the six Bronte children, three became noted for their writing and reclusive social skills. The others -- Maria (who died at 11), Elizabeth (who also passed away young, at age 10) and Bramwell -- would become historical footnotes in light of their siblings' incredible accomplishments. A previous review of a British miniseries entitled The Brontes of Hayworth showed that their early life was just as intriguing as their potboiler tomes. Now, another look at the ladies, Frenchman André Téchiné's The Bronte Sisters, sticks with life post Maria and Elizabeth's passing, offering up its own unique exploration of what it was like to be a female artist in a stoic, Victorian society.
Charlotte (Marie-France Pisier, The Phantom of Liberty), Emily (Isabelle Adjani, The Story of Adele H.) and Anne (Isabelle Huppert, Amour), as well as their brother Bramwell (Pascal Greggory, La Vie En Rose) and their father, Reverend Brontë (Patrick Magee, A Clockwork Orange) are all trying to cope with the unfathomable tragedies that have befallen the family. In place of their long dead mother, Aunt Elizabeth Brontë (Alice Sapritch, A Slightly Pregnant Man) is staying with them to provide a bit of maternal support. We soon learn of Charlotte's desire to leave and teach abroad, Emily's defiance against the standing social norms, and Anne's occasional lapses into pointless skylarking. All three focus with almost a fetish like obsession on their brother Bramwell, and we watch as he falls into a minor downward spiral of alcoholism and drug addiction. As they try and pursue their various aims, their hobby of writing becomes more and more important. Using male pseudonyms, the girls get published. In the meantime, Bramwell sinks further into himself.
The Bronte Sisters is noted by scholars and historians (one of which in on hand for a welcome feature length commentary) as being relatively faithful to the ladies' real story. Techine only takes a few small liberties with his narrative. The rest of the time he strives to be as authentic as possible. That means no Merchant Ivory avenues toward a pristine past. Life during Victorian times was tough, and the director highlights this every chance he gets. On the other hand, this is also a movie about the muse, about catching artistic lightning in an antique bottle and never giving up until you see your dreams realized. All three of the Bronte's are locked in their own insular designs. Charlotte wants out, Emily, wants to change the baffling gender inequalities of the time, and Anne just needs someone to love. With such divergent personalities and goals, it makes sense that most of the movie would rest on their interactions. We do get occasional dramatics outside the Bronte home, but for the most part, this is a drawing room piece with a solid stylistic flair.
It helps to have such able actresses in tow. Pisier may be the least known of the trio, but she is excellent as Charlotte. She balances a brave quality with a knowledge of her potential pitfalls with ample determination. As for Ms. Adjani and Ms. Huppert, these French superstars (then, in the making) argue for their already established greatness here. Anne's is the most difficult role -- she doesn't have the brass ring backstory like the Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre duo does -- but Huppert seems lost in the part. She is just terrific. Similarly, Ms. Adjani delivers on Emily's defiance, focused almost exclusively on an agenda of both confrontation and conformity. It works amazingly well. Among the men, Mr. Gregory and Mr. Magee hold their own while offering enough testosterone to avoid the "chick flick" delineation. But it's Mr. Techine whoâ€™s the real star here. His desire to build tension via layers of personal interaction and outside exposition gives the film a feeling of really happening, versus the standard biopic pronouncements.
The Blu-ray release from Cohen Film Collection is also very impressive. The movie was made in 1979 and this version was remastered for a 2013 theatrical rerelease. It still suffers a bit from overt softness and Techine's desire to filter the past through a cinematic scrim, but for the most part, the colors are solid and the details easily discernible in this 1.85:1, 1080p transfer. The PCM 2.0 mix handles the original French mono with ease, and the subtitles are hard-coded onto the image (meaning they cannot be removed). The big plus here, however, is the added content. Along with the aforementioned commentary (featuring film critic Wade Major and Bronte scholar Sue Lonoff de Cuevas), there's an hour long documentary on the movie that offers up contemporary interviews with some of the cast and crew, as well as a peek behind Techine's approach and ambitions. Add in a pair of trailers and you have a wealth of bonus materials to pour through. The feature length discussion should almost be mandatory listening since it highlights the realities (and tweaks) given to the Bronte's tale.
Most foreign films use their evocative unfamiliarity to evoke emotions and events that we might otherwise overlook in our native tongue. It's the same thing that happens with black and white, silent film, and other cinematic styles. The Bronte Sisters might be focused on three of the biggest names in early English literature, but with its frilly French decorations, we get a wonderful look at one of the biggest anomalies in the history of literature.
Not guilty. An excellent film with equally impressive performances.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: E1 Entertainment
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 2.0 Stereo (French)
Running Time: 120 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Not Rated