As lengthy and passionate as a drawn-out kiss, "Beloved Sisters" is a beautifully made romantic drama set in 18th century Germany that's smart, sensual and emotionally resonant.
Yes, it's also 2 hours, 50 minutes long, but Germany's candidate for the foreign language Oscar is as completely involving as a thick, satisfying novel whose pages you can't wait to turn.
Written and directed by Dominik Graf, one of Germany's top TV directors whose work is barely known here, "Beloved Sisters" is intelligent mainstream filmmaking that succeeds in part because it reflects all the implications of its seemingly simple title.
On one hand, based on the life of the German poet, playwright and philosopher Friedrich Schiller, "Beloved Sisters" focuses on the ménage à trois the writer apparently had with two siblings, one of whom was his wife.
On the other hand, however, these sisters were not only the beloveds of Schiller, they were beloved to each other. In fact, what makes this film so involving is that the bond between these women was as strong, passionate and complicated as the one they felt for Schiller, if not more so.
While many Schiller scholars are said to agree that this three-way relationship took place, minimal documentary evidence of it has survived. Writing almost from scratch, filmmaker Graf has constructed an uncompromisingly romantic drama about love, sacrifice and loss that is also realistic about the potential real-world havoc these kinds of actions can provoke.
Essential in making all these situations emotionally creditable is the fine work by the film's trio of excellent actors: Florian Stetter as Schiller and Hannah Herzsprung and Henriette Confurius as the sisters Caroline and Charlotte, respectively.
"Beloved Sisters" opens in autumn 1787, with younger sister Charlotte in a coach headed for the city of Weimar, where she is to live with her godmother in the hopes that a good match can be found for her.
Very much on the shy Charlotte's mind is the status of her older sister Caroline, who recently entered into a loveless marriage with a wealthy baron to save her widowed mother as well as Charlotte from a life of poverty.
Five years previous, as we see in a flashback to a picturesque roaring waterfall, the sisters are shown to have sworn a secret oath to each other, vowing to live free lives and be soul mates forever. These are words both women take seriously.
"Beloved Sisters" kicks into gear when Charlotte leans out of a Weimar window and strikes up a flirtatious conversation with a poor but handsome young man about, of all things, whether women are good at reading maps.
That turns out to be Herr Schiller, just starting to make a name for himself as a writer who believes "only the pursuit of beauty can free us," the type of romantic who jumps into a river to save a drowning girl even though he can't swim himself.
Schiller and the sisters spend an idyllic summer together, and he writes to a friend that he has two flames burning in his heart. "Beloved Sisters" is especially good at conveying the genuineness of this three-way emotional connection, showing us the thorough-going sincerity with which each person loves the other two.
Understanding that the real world frowns on a love such as theirs, the already married Caroline comes up with a plan. "You could marry him," she tells Charlotte, "to save the love we three share." And so it happens, at least for a time.
For, as is often the case, the complications, frustrations and happenstances of the real world place strains on this three-way love that none of the participants anticipated but which they all have to deal with.
Another of "Beloved Sisters'" strengths is the attention it pays both to physical setting and historical time. Director Graf is intent on using actual buildings of the period whenever possible, and he also explores the effect both the joy of the French Revolution and the horror of the terror that followed had all across Europe. It was a stirring time to be alive, and a forbidden love made it all the more delicious.
No MPAA rating
Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes
Playing: Laemmle's Royal in West Los Angeles, Town Center 5 in Encino, Playhouse 7 in Pasadena