Home Video Hovel: Beloved Sisters, by Aaron Pinkston
Dominik Graf’s Beloved Sisters crosses two distinct genres: the 1700s costume drama and the European sexual awakening drama – at least in its premise. A profile of poet, philosopher and historian Friedrich Schiller is told through his relationship with two sisters, Charlotte and Caroline. While older sister Caroline is trapped in a loveless marriage that saved their family from poverty, Charlotte’s shyness keeps her from love. When the two meet the not-yet-successful poet, they both fall for him and the feeling is mutual. They come to an informal arrangement that allows both sisters to meet their emotional and sexual needs in this relationship.
While this genre and plot could become emotionally heavy or stodgy, the film’s overall style and tone are thankfully playful. A particular supporting character proves to be a good example of this overall. The overbearing parent who rejects a daughter’s lover is usually a villain. Charlotte and Caroline’s mother is initially in the way of love and marriage, though she is depicted as more of a comic foil. Interest in her daughters’ coded letters with Schiller, for example, reaches comically obsessive levels. She treats her house’s staff as a villain would but their reactions range from annoyed to flummoxed, again working against dramatic conventions.
Beloved Sisters is stylish, but not garish. The film even seems to change in style from scene to scene, though not to distract from the whole. Graf changes pace, surprises with camera movement and different visual perspectives to give the film a lot of life. He throws in briskly moving montages, swelling with music and narration. It’s a lush film, in both visual style and steamy plot. The only stylistic choice that doesn’t totally work for me is character direct address readings of letters, though I’ll concede that they are a necessary component of the plot that would be difficult to convey in another way.
At just over 170 minutes, Beloved Sisters is a long experience, and I’m not sure it needed to be. This is perhaps bringing a bit of bias in – my interest in the film was piqued by the wonderful high concept of its plot but Beloved Sisters is far from a high concept film. To say so generously, the film doesn’t rush to its major narrative points. Schiller and Charlotte aren’t married until the film’s midpoint (yeah, that’s 90 minutes), while the triangular relationship doesn’t become serious until about an hour in. This does allow the characters to build past the basics of their relationship, though the first half has stretches that drag.
Perhaps because this is a film about real and notable people, the film wants to give a rounder representation of their entire history. This only leads to strained subplots and biographical background that I found far less compelling than the complications of the central relationship. It is by no means a full biopic, though it covers a number of years, and Schiller often garners the attention as the film’s focal point when he is very much a supporting character in the grand scheme. At times, it seems to war with itself on whether it is a biopic or not. The life of Friedrich Schiller may be a selling point for some, and there are interesting looks at the French Revolution and innovations in printing, but most other developments just become background noise.