Beloved Sisters opens with all the trappings of the boilerplate TV costume drama apparently intact: a tasteful piano/woodwind score, mildly over-the-top period details, tight bodices, and the requisite historical buildings, here scrubbed to an almost artificial shine. As the avuncular narrator informs us, it’s autumn 1787 and the predictably beautiful Charlotte von Lengefeld (Henriette Confurius) has been sent to the court in Weimar, where she’s supposed to pick out a future husband of suitable affluence and standing. The only person to catch her eye, though, is famous, yet penniless, poet Friedrich Schiller (Florian Stetter), who eventually follows her back home at the behest of Charlotte’s unhappily married sister, Caroline von Beulwitz (Hannah Herzsprung), who finds him equally alluring.
Yet just as the stage seems set for a dully impassioned love triangle, the film blossoms instead into a breezily utopian depiction of a ménage á trois whose entirely matter-of-fact presentation sets up an intriguing dissonance with the prim period setting. Even before the affair has gotten underway, a certain modernity has also begun to suffuse the film’s stolid-seeming form: a jagged cut here, a whip pan there, a tight close up of three faces pressed together around a sun-dappled tree, before the camera pans down to reveal two hands clenched together and just a hint of pubic hair. The often hue-perfect coordination of costume and set also establishes a sense of subtle artifice, if a relatively timid one.
As this affaire de coeur deepens and richens, so, too, do writer-director Dominik Graf’s ways of capturing it, even if the chintz is never kept entirely at bay. The sheer in-your-face defiance with which Schiller and Caroline share a sweaty, rapturous fuck with her husband only minutes away is echoed by the rapid zoom into the mirror in which they suddenly notice themselves. When the three are temporarily parted, their fervent letter exchange is visualized in a striking extended sequence of cuts and superimpositions between carriage journeys, maps, pens on paper, and frontal shots of each of the trio, all imploring the camera with equal ardour. The Enlightenment setting and Schiller’s lyrical tracts to this end are also cleverly harnessed to add an additional layer of giddy possibility, the lovers’ organically transgressive setup a more than natural fit for the contemporaneity seemingly just around the corner.
By the time the romantic feelings start tipping over into anguish, Graf is well on his way to channelling Terence Davies, the images of a head passing by a colored window or the lily-patterned wallpaper behind a headboard each carrying an emotional charge only amplified by memory. Yet the one bravura shot in which a recollection of prior lovemaking is inserted into a difficult childbirth, with the camera briefly grazing the walls and ceiling before returning to a stricken face, is more or less the last hurrah.
Just as the hopes of the Enlightenment begin to curdle into revolution, it becomes increasingly clear that the two equally valiant struggles against convention at the heart of the film are equally doomed: the sisters’ attempts to live out their unorthodox feelings and Graf’s efforts to cast off the shackles of the costume drama. As the soundtrack reasserts itself, the formal invention seeps away, and a mood of boringly familiar melodrama comes to the fore, other flaws begin to abound. Secondary characters suddenly become vital for the advancement of the plot, the sisters’ mother has a convenient third-act personality change, and the mismatch between the acting talents of Herzsprung (considerable) and Confurius (out of her depth) goes from tacit to glaring.
It’s hard to fault Graf on his ambition, given that his revisionism is aimed in so many different directions simultaneously, at once putting a feminist spin on German literary history, slyly foregrounding dates, real-life meetings, and authentication techniques even as his story relies largely on extrapolation, and trying, if ultimately unsuccessfully, to splinter the pastel patina of the costume-drama genre. There’s also something pleasingly provocative about choosing a late-18th-century setting for a tale of polyamory so down to earth it would still feel oddly radical today. Yet for all these virtues, it’s just as hard not to apply Caroline’s heartfelt, naïve refusal to accept her situation to the film itself: a tragic case of being governed more by what it wants to be than what it actually is.