Youthful sisters swearing to each otherthat they will always share everything is sweet. Reminding themselves of that oath with zero regrets when they grow into inseparable young women is lovely. Giddily agreeing that it’s fair game to go halfies on a man—well, that’s an extremely bad idea.
Dominik Graf’s Beloved Sisters, Germany’s unsuccessful submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, takes place in the time of corsets, powdered wigs, and manners, when a guy with empty pockets had no prospects of landing a wife. In the late 18th century, ladies were pressured to dig for that gold, and those who sought to marry for love instead of money were deemed fools.
So Friedrich Schiller (Florian Stetter) was one lucky dude. The film is a semi-speculative biopic of the poet, historian, and playwright whose esteem for beauty and deep thinking attracted the attention of those sharing-is-caring sisters, Charlotte (Henriette Confurius) and Caroline (Hannah Herzsprung). Single Charlotte falls for him first, and eventually becomes his wife. Caroline is married, but it’s a rather miserable marriage of convenience to save her family from the poverty they were heading toward after the death of her father, so she’s game for anything. Soon, a not-so-secret ménage à trois forms, with the three passing each other coded notes like schoolchildren.
Beloved Sisters is as beautiful to take in as any period piece, and Graf employs stylish touches—perhaps too few of them—to make it stand out, like colorful setting titles that float across the screen and having the actors dictate letters they’re writing while staring directly into the camera, which boosts the power of their words. The script itself is often witty, at least until the women’s mother (Claudia Messner) is persuaded to give her blessing for Charlotte to marry Schiller, whom she thinks “looks like a beggar”: “My daughters deserve a life without worries,” she tells Schiller. (There’s a mention of Charlotte’s “market value,” but let’s not twist that into something salacious.)
When it eventually becomes clear that Caroline (who in reality became Schiller’s biographer) has the deeper attraction to and connection with Schiller, things get soapy—but at least the story becomes more streamlined at that point, whereas the bulk of the film’s nearly three-hour runtime involves so much talk with so many names that you’ll only pick up the principals.
The story’s central triangle doesn’t bring a whole lot of heat, and the air between Charlotte and her husband beyond the courting stage is particularly cold. Initially, she’s so grateful to Caroline for saving their family with her loveless marriage that Charlotte’s willing to be Schilling’s wife only by name. (Let’s just say that graciousness doesn’t last long.) But even when CarSchill are in the throes of passion, the cries of the lovers are muted to dinner-conversation politeness: “It’s all very enjoyable!” Caroline says. That laugh-out-loud moment could serve as a critique of the film, but you’d have to replace “all” with “mostly.”
Beloved Sisters opens Friday, Jan. 23 atE Street Cinema.