Modern Family

André Téchiné, The Brontë Sisters, 1979, 35 mm, color, sound, 120 minutes. Charlotte Brontë (Marie-France Pisier).

THE INTELLIGENT AUSTERITY that marks André Téchiné’s underappreciated fourth film, The Brontë Sisters (1979), is a rarity both for the director, whose work, at least since the mid-1990s, has frequently succumbed to voluble hysterics, and the literary biopic, a genre prone to melodrama. That this is a serious meditation on the creators of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, classic texts whose screen adaptations have too often devolved into clamorous Victorian bodice-rippers, makes its hush all the more admirable.

The dominant sound, in fact, is the scratching of fountain pen on paper. Téchiné’s rendering of this genius-glutted family in grim nineteenth-century Haworth, co-scripted with Pascal Bonitzer (a frequent collaborator of Jacques Rivette’s, whose 1985 adaptation of Wuthering Heights he co-wrote), might have been more accurately titled “The Brontë Siblings”: Just as significant as Charlotte (Marie-France Pisier), Emily (Isabelle Adjani), and Anne (Isabelle Huppert) is the sole Brontë brother, Branwell (Pascal Greggory). “Unrecognized, my talent cannot grow. But I’ll be famous,” Branwell writes to his sisters, a boast never realized, his talents squandered by too many nights at the Black Bull Inn, poor object choices (he was in love with his tutee’s mother, the wife of an imperious reverend), and too much laudanum.

Though prophetically sensing that his doting sisters would eclipse him—Branwell, who died at age thirty-one, effaced himself from a painting he did of all four siblings, an erasure touchingly depicted by Téchiné—the brother is paradoxically the only Brontë whose talents are saluted by their father (Patrick Magee). “We have an artist in the family,” the paterfamilias beams during the film’s opening moments, as his son unveils his group portrait. The praise stings Charlotte, presented here as the most ambitious—though she desires success not just for herself but her two younger sisters, exhorting Emily, “We’ve always written. You must publish that poem—you must!”

Sensitive to the extreme limits the Brontë sisters faced owing to their sex, Téchiné is careful not to overdramatize the fact that Charlotte, Emily, and Anne all published, in 1847, their first novels under male pseudonyms (becoming, respectively, the “brothers” Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell). The director’s insistence on understatement—though never at the expense of diminishing the anguish and thwarted desire the sisters endured during their too-short lives (all died before reaching the age of forty)—clearly guided the performances as well. Assembling three of France’s premier actresses, two of whom— Adjani and Huppert—were in the rapidly ascending phase of their careers, Téchiné, as he reveals in a current-day interview for the film’s DVD and Blu-ray release, demanded a “sobriety of acting,” not wanting the set to be “a competition among stars.” (Perhaps best-known for his later work in the films of Patrice Chéreau, Greggory, also interviewed for the making-of extra, dishes about his on-screen sisters more openly.) While all four siblings are indelibly portrayed, this quartet of exceptionally talented actors is almost overshadowed by one nonprofessional, who doesn’t appear until the last twelve minutes of the film: Roland Barthes, as William Makepeace Thackeray, in his only screen appearance.

The Brontë Sisters is available on DVD and Blu-ray beginning July 30 from Cohen Media Group.