I approached the 2013 Blu-Ray edition of André Téchiné’s “The Bronte Sisters” (1979) with mild
interest, which was mostly piqued by the powerhouse casting of the three
leading young actresses of 1970s French cinema -- Isabelle Adjani, Isabelle
Huppert, and Marie-France Pisier -- as Emily, Anne, and Charlotte Bronte.
Imagine a 2014 U.S. film teaming Scarlett Johanssen, Jennifer Lawrence and
Shailene Woodley. With vague memories of “Devotion,” Hollywood’s melodramatic
1946 Bronte biopic, I was doubtful that the film itself would be particularly
compelling. But I was pleasantly surprised. Relating the formative
events in the lives of the three sisters and their brother Branwell (Pascal
Greggory) in straightforward, episodic form, Téchiné’s interpretation is
first-rate: excellently acted, emotionally moving, and visually striking with
starkly beautiful cinematography by Bruno Nuytten on the Yorkshire moors where
the Bronte siblings lived their sadly short lives.
In a new documentary about the
making of the film, included as an extra on the Cohen Film Collection Blu-Ray,
Téchiné recalls that he wanted to stay true to the facts of the Brontes’ lives
without speculation or embellishment. Similarly, he “demanded a certain
austerity of acting” from the cast to complement the unadorned style of the
narrative. Beginning with a scene in which Branwell, proud but also uncertain
about his talent, unveils his painting of his three sisters and himself, the
movie proceeds to cover decisive moments in the siblings’ lives. Emily, a free
spirit, capers on the moors in boy’s clothing. Charlotte, the quietly ambitious
sister, convinces their aunt to lend money so that she and Emily to go abroad
to school. Anne, the dutiful one, stays behind to take care of their father,
aunt, and brother.
Initially, this approach seems a
bit cold and distant, but as the movie continues, it becomes clear that
Téchiné’s decision was a wise one. The unfolding vignettes are quietly powerful
in illuminating the close and sometimes contentious relationships between the
sisters. This matter-of-factness pays off especially well in the later segments
of the film. As one tragedy after another besets the family, the scenes
relating to the deaths of Branwell, Emily, and Anne are all the more affecting
because they aren’t amped up with banal dialogue and syrupy background music.
Téchiné is helped immensely by the costuming, set design and cinematography (as
he acknowledges in the making-of documentary), which recreate mid-19th Century
England in astonishing detail.
A certain playful sense of humor
surfaces occasionally, leavening the bleakness of the story. When the sisters
submit their first novels as Acton, Currer, and Ellis Bell, speculation runs
wild in the publishing world: are they the same person, are they male or
female, are they a man and a woman collaborating? Deciding it’s time to reveal
the sisters’ true identities, Anne and Charlotte travel to London to meet with
their publisher in person. “I am Currer Bell, and that is Acton,” Charlotte
says quietly when she and Anne appear unexpectedly in the publisher’s office.
“We are three sisters. There is no man.” Pisier delivers the lines with perfect
Adjani, Huppert, and Pisier are
luminous. Interviews in the making-of documentary reveal that the actresses had
a sometimes intense off-camera rivalry, complicated by existing relationships
with other people in the production crew. (Téchiné and Pisier were friends;
Adjani and Nuytten were romantically attached.) It’s a measure of Téchiné’s
talent and the actresses’ professionalism that the three women convincingly
project a sisterly bond of support and affection, with perhaps the real-life
rivalry only erupting strategically on screen in scenes where the sisters’ love
for each other is strained. I wish Patrick Magee (“Marat/Sade,” “A Clockwork
Orange”) had more to do as the head of the Bronte family, and his distinctive
voice is lost because his lines are dubbed in French by someone else, but
nevertheless his presence is used effectively if sparingly, Bronte purists will
be pleased that he, Téchiné, and co-writer Pascal Bonitzer portray the Rev.
Patrick Bronte sympathetically as a caring father and progressive clergyman,
reflecting modern scholarship that refutes earlier prose and film portraits of
Bronte as a domestic tyrant.
In addition to the making-of
documentary, the Cohen Film Collection Blu-Ray includes two trailers and an
excellent audio commentary track by film critic Wade Major and Bronte scholar
Sue Lonoff de Cuevas. If you’re as unfamiliar with the subject matter as I was,
I might almost suggest that you listen to the commentary before playing the
movie, since Major and de Cuevas illuminate many details about Bronte history
and about the production aspects of the movie that deepened my appreciation of
the film. Although the making-of documentary doesn’t include Adjani or Huppert
(Pisier died in 2011), many of the other key cast and crew are interviewed.
This is an excellent Blu-Ray package, highly recommended.