Is there a harder era to sexualize than the bewigged 18th century? Obviously these people got it on, though it’s a wonder when or how. You remember a movie like Dangerous Liaisons, because it’s such an overheated exception. For the most part, we viewers make do with awkward metaphorical conversations about “key-making” in Marie Antoinette or the chilly, exquisite remove of Marisa Berenson in Barry Lyndon.
Beloved Sisters, director Dominik Graf’s rib-sticking epic romance set at the modernizing golden age of late-1700s Weimar Germany, isn’t the lusty bed romp I’m setting it up to be, but it pounds with erotic tension. The material comes from a disputed bit of actual history: the seduction, by poet and thinker Friedrich Schiller (Florian Stetter), of aristocratic-born Charlotte von Lengefeld (Henriette Confurius), alongside the wooing of her sister, Caroline (Hannah Herzsprung), who eventually became a precious confidante. Graf’s original screenplay, which departs radically from Caroline’s coy 1830 posthumous biography of Schiller, has the good sense to suggest that these women, libertines of their day, had as much to do with maintaining that 20-year union as did their man.
Unlike many costume dramas, Graf’s film never feels stuffy. Instead it sets up a sunny countryside estate (impeccably shot on location), where youthful flirtations seem to arise naturally. Schiller, vacationing near the girls, is drawn to them—an early scene has them spying on him from their bedroom window. He jumps into a nearby river to save a drowning stranger (even though he himself can’t swim), and the sisters race to his aid, warming him up with a double hug. A playful back-and-forth grows, conducted over wax-sealed correspondence and in person.
Beloved Sisters doesn’t grovel in eventual heartache over its protracted running time—and perhaps due to that loses a little heft. It goes down easy, like high-grade comfort food. But with revolution in the air (both literal and sexual), the ache of the three leads is enough to sweep you up.
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