Strange that the definitive cine-biography of three giants of English literature, still taught in classrooms across the country, is a French language production. Unintentionally amusing whenever the actors pronounce Bradford with the uvular trill of French-accented English. Stranger still is that for all the word-renowned star power in the title roles (Marie-France Pisier as Charlotte, Isabelle Huppert as Anne and Isabelle Adjani as Emily), André Téchiné’s Palme d’Or nominee has been largely forgotten amongst even the most ardent cineastes.
Thankfully, the Cohen Film Collection have recently rediscovered and fully re-mastered this obscure oddity on Blu-ray, a format befitting a film that works harder at creating a brooding atmosphere than any attempts at penetrating or explaining the sisters’ artistic genius. Mood is what prevails, the girls’ strict, puritanical upbringing reflected throughout by their austere surroundings.
Drudging through laborious days in their widowed father’s parsonage, lit only by oil lamps and backing on to a graveyard, the same gothic chill of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights can be felt here. The Brontës write next to crackling fires in darkened parlour rooms, pages blackened by the suffrage of their formal, indoor imprisonment, just as the slate sky blackens the blustery moors which call out to them from beyond the transparent cell bars of formidable parish windows.
Considering the significance of this prolific family’s contributions to literary history, Téchiné obliquely covers their inspirations without reducing them down to simple cause and effect. In what was essentially his first proper screenplay credit, legendary dramatist Pascal Bonitzer (still going strong as the scribe behind the recently released Looking for Hortense) admirably sticks to the facts with precious little dramatic embellishment, though Téchiné is conscious of not reporting them like a dusty old textbook.
Lyrical in both tone and construction, Téchiné and Bonitzer pliantly bend time. Turning scenes into an elliptical series of enigmatic yet evocative shards. As far as an hour and twenty minutes in, the sisters’ famed novels and legacy seem all but forgotten until quick-fire jump cuts of the manuscripts for Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey and Jane Eyre slamming down on the desks of London’s literati one after the other, provide a startling reminder of their authorship.
A ballad of stoic hardship rather than standard issue biopic, it’s well known that the Brontë’s short lives were staked by death, though Téchiné’s elliptical structure only permits the various bereavements to occur off-screen so as to avoid extravagant melodrama. What remains is a poem to the painful reality of three women who excelled and prevailed in a man’s world that closed its doors to them, while their artistically uncertain brother Bracknell was given every opportunity, none of which he ever came close to fulfilling.
The multitude of severe time jumps that occur without signposting often makes the film feel like hard work for those who aren’t Brontë experts. When Anne asks Charlotte what they’re likely to be doing four years from now, the question is answered with a flash-forward of Anne wearing the same clothes and seeming completely unchanged. Now working as a governess for the cruel and demanding Robinson family (the experience that greatly inspired The Tenant of Wildfell Hall), the passage of time is only noted by how far it has gotten ahead of the audience, though exactly how far we’re never quite sure (the commentary track reveals that in this instance it’s the four years between 1837 and 1841).
Equally disconcerting is the enormous dimension the Brontë sisters’ brother Bracknell (Pascal Greggory) commandeers in a story, which one assumes from the title isn’t his. For a time the sisters become supporting characters in their brother’s smug love story, a self-pitying summer romance with the much older wife of his employer. The focus on Bracknell doesn’t make sense until much, much later, his cripplingly malady and decreasing dominance in the household dovetailing with his sisters finally finding the courage to step out from under his shadow and reverse their fortunes. Admittedly, it takes listening to the commentary track and how Téchiné positions Bracknell in the frame amongst his sisters throughout the story to fully appreciate his arc and its function, but it’s exactly the kind of film that rewards repeat viewings.
Given the film’s star power, the monk-like sobriety and minimalism demanded of the three leads is fascinating to watch. A young Isabelle Huppert plays Victorian primness with characteristic frostiness, while Marie-France Pisier is the ambitious, driven mother figure, and Isabelle Adjani the feisty, forceful rebel. The image of Adjani striding angrily across the Moors, encapsulates better than any of the hushed dialogue, the intensity of Emily’s imagination, surging below the imperturbable resolve of a solemn surface. Adjani’s meltdown in the scene where Emily catches Charlotte reading a work in progress without permission eerily prefigures the electrifying madness of Possession a couple of years later, and it’s tempting to think of that film as Adjani’s response to being otherwise so utterly restrained here.
The uninitiated shouldn’t expect a historical primer on the Brontës and will more than likely come away unsure what to make of a film so discreetly demure. Little is learnt about why the Brontës are so revered today but there’s a delirious romanticism and vulnerability to the characters that says more about them than any academic case study. Not quite an undiscovered classic but for completist fans of this enduring trio of performers, it’s a high profile curio impossible to resist.
First published by Vérité Film Magazine on September 1, 2013