The Brontë Sisters

(Les Sours Brontë, André Téchiné, France, 1979)


It is too easy to dismiss André Téchiné’s The Brontë Sisters as an extravagant arthouse failure. A failure it may be, but its art-film pedigree – seemingly vouched for its high literary markings, turgid pacing, painterly positioning of actors, excessive attention to costume and décor, and mandatory “beautiful photography” – is, I think, questionable.


The film becomes more intriguing once we point to the areas of cinematic and fictional exploration from which it derives. Like a movie it resembles in many respects, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975), The Brontë Sisters tantalises with frequent glimpses of the work it could have been, or clearly wants to be. There are, to be sure, fascinating things going on at the edges of The Brontë Sisters.


First, consider the references: Téchiné, a gifted critic of the 1960s, who wrote on Carl Dreyer in Cahiers du Cinèma; a charming and fascinating cameo by Roland Barthes (whose famous essay on Eisenstein, “The Third Meaning”, is dedicated to Téchiné, his former lover); a script by Pascal Bonitzer, key Cahiers figure of the ‘70s (author of Le regard et la voix in 1976) and Jean Gruault, a sophisticated collaborator of François Truffaut and Jacques Rivette.


I take The Brontë Sisters to be a sly attempt to explode the rules of the historical-biography-of-famous-persons genre from within. The fact, which so infuriated mainstream reviewers, that it displays an almost comical lack of regard for historical fact, and hardly mentions how and what the Brontës wrote – but projects their fiction, through a weird twist, back into the representation of their lives – all this should be enough to alert us to other intentions.


More para– or meta-fiction than straight fiction, the film is full of fictional gestures (a woman sits, then coughs violently and at length: first sign of a fatality narrative) seemingly arrayed in quotation marks, but in a way that does not correspond to camp or parody (hence audience problems with taking the film as either serious or non-serious). And its fictional material – the stuff of the 19th century melodramatic novel – is constantly being edged into a set of modern interpretative concerns: psychoanalysis of the Freudian “family romance” and its identity positions; the shifting cinematic textuality of the inscription of the look, the voice, the body in performance; a neo-formalist fascination (à la Noël Burch, Jean-André Fieschi) with the slow, minute, stylistic workings of the films of F.W. Murnau, Dreyer, Robert Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu; possibly a re-heated religiosity (à la Julia Kristeva and Philippe Sollers in the ‘80s) lurking as a pay-off at the end of all this hard, materialist work.


The Brontë Sisters is valuable, at the very least, for its slow-burning preview of a free cinematic lyricism (scenes and shots arranged in the montage according to an unusual system of ebbing energies and flows of intensity: prominent, abrupt swells of music; inserts of a raging or placid sea; the textures of a rock face or a wall) that will truly come into its own in a film such as Jean-Luc Godard’s Prenom: Carmen (1983).


However, the film is a failure – albeit a fascinating one – and there are three main reasons why. It is in that Cahiers-motivated mid ‘70s push to embrace mainstream fiction and Hollywood textuality but, in doing so, to turn them inside out, make them strange, show their darker and more delicious sides. However, the move to accommodate mainstream forms (like the costume drama) here oversteps itself and the project topples; there is too much the smell of compromise in the way Téchiné plays out the big-budget requirements of this historical spectacle.


There is also a related problem whereby the film gets too deep into the skin of the fictional naturalism it seeks to discuss and disturb – and just ends up looking like a badly realised ordinary film, with no really clear indication to the typical arthouse audience that it is trying to do anything different with this material.


The third troubling facet of The Brontë Sisters is the sense that it is coming around, very naively, to a supposedly new understanding of melodrama – as symbolic fiction, as a play with clearly defined iconic and social types (particularly in the theatricality of its ending) – which, in fact, was well and richly understood by Hollywood cinema (Douglas Sirk, Vincente Minnelli, George Cukor, plus a host of lesser lights) at least 40 years previously.


In this, it makes an interesting double with another work of its time and context, Jean-Louis Comolli’s La Cecilia (1975). Both films make for a diverting theory/practice case study, and should not just be written off as botched jobs. But for a successful, indeed profound film from the same cultural milieu, immediately find Benoît Jacquot’s Les Enfants du placard (1977), one of the great unknown gems of French cinema.

MORE Téchiné: Loin, Alice and Martin, Wild Reeds

© Adrian Martin August 1985

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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