Sister, Act: English Lit, French Style with The Brontë Sisters (1979)


To view The Brontë Sisters click here.

The love affair between European cinema and the literary works of the Brontë sisters has been a fascinating one for decades, though it’s often overlooked in favor of Hollywood’s more publicized adaptations like Wuthering Heights (1939) and Jane Eyre (1943). Over the years we’ve seen versions of their novels come from such disparate filmmakers as Luis Buñuel, Jacques Rivette, Franco Zeffirelli, Andrea Arnold and Robert Fuest, all of whom offered their own unique takes on the windswept, tormented romanticism that fueled their classic novels. The fascination with the Brontës continues to this day, as seen by the buzz over the BBC One television film, To Walk Invisible, a biography of the Brontës that debuted this month in the United States on PBS’ Masterpiece.

Oddly enough, the first big screen film about the actual Brontës themselves came from France in 1979 courtesy of André Téchiné, the director of such films as Barocco (1976), Scene of the Crime (1986) and Wild Reeds (1994). Though entitled The Brontë Sisters, the film might as well be called The Brontë Siblings instead as it offers an equal focus on Branwell, their ill-fated brother played here by Pascal Greggory. As any English lit majors worth their salt can tell you, we have three sisters here living in Yorkshire: Emily (Isabelle Adjani), who published only one novel (Wuthering Heights) before her death at age 30; Charlotte (Marie-France Pisier), the eldest and most prolific of the three and author of Jane Eyre; and Anne (Isabelle Huppert), the youngest, who died at 29 and wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. (They also had two older sisters who died in childhood.) Right off the bat the film starts hitting some of the most famous highlights of their lives, such as Branwell’s famous portrait of the quartet from which his presence was later removed.

As you can tell from that cast, what we have here is a showcase for three of France’s greatest actresses at the time. I first tracked this film down back in the 1980s when I was on a kick to watch everything in sight with Isabelle Adjani, and back then it was no easy task to even find a copy without English subtitles. You’d think any film with those three leading ladies would be a major world event, but after an auspicious bow at the Cannes Film Festival, it essentially sank without a trace amidst a chilly critical reception and rumors about Gaumont’s butchery of Téchiné’s supposedly three-hour original director’s cut (of which two hours now remains). And you know what? The movie’s actually pretty great, and if that much material really was removed, you can’t tell. It’s a real joy to see the stunning Adjani at the peak of her powers here, the same year as her fragile performance in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre and just before her incendiary role in Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981), which is still arguably the most intense performance ever captured on film. I suspect she was cast here largely based on her titular role in François Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H (1975), which is loaded with shots of Adjani wandering along the coast with her hair tumbling in the wind; it’s a clear spiritual cousin to the work of the Brontës even if she’s playing Victor Hugo’s daughter, and she’s more than up to the task here with the camera sticking to her like a magnet in all of her scenes. It doesn’t hurt that the film’s cinematographer, Bruno Nuytten, was Adjani’s companion at the time (they had a son, Barnabé, the same year this film was released), and he would go on to direct Adjani to an Oscar-nominated performance in another biopic, Camille Claudel (1988).


Arguably the hottest name at the time but almost entirely forgotten by English-speaking film fans today, Marie-France Pisier had soared to fame as an on-and-off muse for Truffaut right from his early short film beginnings and would even collaborate with him for the final time in another of her 1979 features, Love on the Run, whose screenplay she also co-authored. Of course, she was cast here based on her earlier lead role in Barocco (also starring Adjani and shot by Nuytten), which preceded her notoriously botched attempt at Hollywood stardom with the fantastically soapy but financially disastrous The Other Side of Midnight (1977). For some reason her model-worthy looks tended to leave her typecast in the following decade, largely due to her peculiar turn as Coco Chanel in the cable TV staple Chanel Solitaire (1981), but she’s a fine actress who’s ripe for rediscovery one of these days.


Then we have Isabelle Huppert, who was poised to have a major breakthrough in America just after this with Heaven’s Gate (1980) before… well, we all know what happened there. Fortunately her career in France was already well established by this point with titles like The Lacemaker (1977) and the first of several collaborations with Claude Chabrol, Violette (1978), and she has since proven to have the longest and most durable career of the three leads, including her recent Golden Globe-winning turn in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle (2016). (As for the Oscars, she was robbed, I tells ya! Robbed!) Her performance her is typically superb, though for some reason it strikes me as the oddest bit of casting since her earthy presence is so indelibly tied to her French films that it’s a constant effort to try to buy her as someone who’s ever set foot in Yorkshire, much less grown up there. Granted it’s not even remotely as big a stretch as, say, Kirk Douglas playing Vincent Van Gogh or Roger Daltrey doing Franz Liszt, but Huppert is so closely tied to her fiery French performances that it’s a bit of a hurdle to keep reminding yourself who she’s playing here.

The Brontë Sisters is a new arrival here at FilmStruck as part of a spotlight on the literary family, also including both of their most famous Hollywood adaptations. If you try watching all three in a row, make sure the windows are latched tight and you have plenty of warm clothes handy.

Nathaniel Thompson

2 Responses Sister, Act: English Lit, French Style with The Brontë Sisters (1979)
Posted By Mitch Farish : April 5, 2017 12:58 am

The first big screen film about the actual Brontës themselves was Devotion (1946) with Ida Lupino and Olivia de Havilland.

Posted By Saladbar : April 5, 2017 11:35 am

This movie sounds fascinating–have seen the ’46 Warner Bros. version of the Brontës’ story, but this sounds like it would be a better and more accurate account.
BTW, “The Other Side of Midnight” was not “financially disastrous”–it was a big hit in the summer of 1977. The myth that it bombed has been perpetuated for years by the “Star Wars” crowd, and now it’s accepted as fact. Marie-France Pisier should have been a bigger star in America, but it just never happened for her. You’re right that she’s ripe for rediscovery. Thanks.

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