The film stars Franco-actress standouts Isabelle Adjani (Possession) and Isabelle Huppert (Amour) before they were household names in international cinema. Adjani is Emily, the most recognized of the Brontë sisters; Huppert is Ann, the youngest; and the moral realist in the family and the oldest and least-known, Charlotte, is played by the late Marie-France Pisier (The Other Side of Midnight).
Initially publishing their poems under male pseudonyms, the siblings venture to London to have their stories published in England, already popular in America at this point, expecting the hard criticism they encounter. Emily’s professor even discourages her from taking poetry seriously, advising her to use it as a hobby instead of art.
Now on Blu-ray as part of the Cohen Film Collection, the drama captures the dissonance between their collective writings and their actual lives. The vitality and passion found within a Brontë novel does not represent the sisters’ realities, characterized by Victorian middle-class struggles and, most overtly, the costs of being female in the publishing and literary realms in the 19th century. The sisters’ lives were comprised mainly of battles with their father and caring for their brother, Branwell (Pascal Greggory, La Vie en Rose), in his poetic, opium-filled despair.
All three of the Brontë sisters died young, and while the death toll seems high in this family, it was not uncommon in Haworth, England, at the time. Téchiné captures the anticipation of death that was true to the nature of the times: cold and seemingly unaffected. The bond captured in the film is more visceral than anything else in their lives, and after Emily dies, it is apparent that Charlotte and Ann’s authorial experiences would be forever altered.
Téchiné brings an auteur’s eye to this quintessentially British (although French-language) biopic, with the placid earth-tone colors of the scenery and the dark interiors; the film reflects the Brontës’ cold existence as a family of tortured, working-class artists.
The Brontë Sisters doesn’t do much in the way of negating the stereotypes associated with each of the women, which have been firmly reinforced by years of literary criticism and fictionalization. Anne is still pious as ever; Emily is as dark as she is narcissistic; and Charlotte is a compliant “survivor.” The historical story pulls from legend and biography, the latter sometimes indistinguishable from the former.
In her account published in 1904 for The Guardian, Virginia Woolf remarked upon visiting Haworth that “Haworth expresses the Brontës; the Brontës express Haworth; they fit like a snail to its shell.” Remastered, Téchiné’s film’s aesthetics represent Haworth in the same way, and are coincidentally reminiscent of Andrea Arnold’s 2011 rendition of Wuthering Heights, adapted from Emily Brontë’s original dark romantic novel. Case in point: The setting is undeniably bleak, beautiful and quintessentially English, just like the ladies’ legacies. —Aimee Williams
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