Film

18th-Century Period Piece Beloved Sisters Mixes the Pastoral and Sexually Playful

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In a marvelously cheeky 1979 essay, the late, great Ellen Willis defined the difference between classical sex (“romantic, profound, serious…and typically feminine”) and baroque sex (“pop, playful, funny…and stereotypically masculine”).

So where shall we put German director Dominik Graf’s Beloved Sisters, which tells the possibly semi-true story of the pact made by aristocratic sisters Caroline and Charlotte von Lengefeld (played by Hannah Herzsprung and Henriette Confurius) to peaceably share the same man, poet, playwright, and historian Friedrich Schiller (Florian Stetter)?

Everything goes swimmingly for a time in this 18th-century idyll, and, particularly in the first section of the film, Graf brings a lush but discreet eroticism to the story. In the most stunning sequence, Schiller saves a child from drowning, though he’s unable to swim himself; afterward, the sisters hustle him into a field and urge him to strip off his clothes, huddling close to warm him, their voluminous country-maid dresses fanned out protectively.

As you can imagine, it’s all too good to last, and tensions mount in the film’s somewhat creaky second half. Still, Graf maps these complications with deftness and sensitivity. Although there’s nothing sensationalistic about his approach, he treats the characters’ tentative, often problematic bohemianism as a wild, brave, and precious thing, and the lead actors — restrained where it counts and bold where it matters — are a pleasure to watch.

Beloved Sisters has some delectably pastoral, classical earmarks, but in the end — baroque. Definitely baroque.

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