Genre: Drama, Biography
Director: James Lapine
Actors: Judy Davis, Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Bernadette Peters, Mandy Patinkin
Country: UK, France
First-time director James Lapine’s Impromptu (1989) is Masterpiece Theatre with an extra dollop of gusto. Focusing on George Sand, the French novelist who was described as “everything a 19th Century lady should not be,” Impromptu portrays Sand and her circle (which included composers Franz Liszt & Frédéric Chopin, poet Alfred de Musset, and painter Eugène Delacroix) with a refreshing, witty, enthusiastic lack of solemnity. The photography and decors in the film are period perfect, but the viewer never feels as if he or she is walking through a museum of famous lives. One might contrast the sheer vitality of this film with the sincere-but-plodding simplicity of Spring Symphony (1984), which tells the story of another celebrated composer, Robert Schumann, and pianist Clara Wieck.
As appealing as Nastassja Kinski is as Clara, she’s no match for Davis’s Sand. The George Sand of Impromptu exudes a passionate paganism that substitutes the worship of art for that of nature—and draws talented men into her orbit as the sun captures comets. Judy Davis makes it clear that Sand, who dressed in men’s clothes and smoked cigars and took what she wanted, wasn’t denying her femininity. What she was denying was the perception that a woman of her time should have to play by separate rules than a man. Ironically, rebelliousness—in conjunction with passion and talent—is a powerful aphrodisiac. Impromptu is mainly the story of how George Sand manages to seduce the reclusive, aristocratic, invalid Chopin—who would have seemed the least likely candidate for her affections.
At the time Sand first met him, at the home of Franz Liszt’s mistress, the Countess d’Agoult, Chopin (the ubiquitous Hugh Grant) had become a darling of Parisian society. He was also in the early stages of the tuberculosis which would eventually kill him. He had come to see his body as something to be abandoned in the pursuit of his music. But where Chopin’s acquaintances may have seen “the Polish corpse,” a man with one foot in the grave and “as frail as a holy wafer,” from the moment Sand first hears his music she recognizes his art as eternal, and its creator as an angel who will bring the kind of pure beauty into her life the lack of which no amount of freedom can compensate for. I don’t know if Sand ever really snuck into Chopin’s room and lay on the floor under the piano and listened to him play; she does so in Impromptu, and the moment she slides out from under that piano and confronts Chopin for the first time is one of my favorite moments in cinema.
Sand offers Chopin her strength because, as she herself admits, she has too much of it. She takes from his music a temporary reprieve from the hungers which drive her. When they first met, in 1836, Chopin was 26 years old and Sand was 32. Their relationship lasted some ten years. Chopin died in 1850, two years after their separation; Sand continued to write until her death 25 years later. For all the fulgor of her temperament, George Sand’s true link to Chopin was on the plane of idealized beauty. Many of her novels (she wrote more than 80) are characterized by a surprising optimism and a vision of innocent love. As a young woman, she had written: “We want to…sanctify love, lost and profaned in the world.” Unfortunately, Sand’s reputation does not seem to have fared well in this latter, more cynical part of the 20th century. Few of her works seem to be available in English translation, except in hard-to-find or out-of-print editions from small feminist publishers (such as the Shameless Hussy Press). One happy exception is Sand’s first novel, Indiana, available in an inexpensive Signet paperback.
The casting of the film is superb. Aside from Judy Davis, Mandy Patinkin is wonderful as Alfred de Musset—a tempestuous old flame of Sand’s who would rather climb out a sixth story window or chew glass than face her again. De Musset lived the poet’s life to the hilt, but his relationship with George Sand marked him for life. Although he would later revile her (“She’s a cannibal. She would drink the blood of her children from the skull of her lover and not feel so much as a stomach ache.”) de Musset was condemned to forever remain Sand’s kindred spirit. As he himself declares at one point: “Better to feel something than nothing—even if it’s teeth.” As Oscar Wilde might have said, and de Musset does, art does not apologize.
Hugh Grant plays Chopin in fine counterpoint to Davis’s Sand. Ironically, because he’s the only person in Sand’s entourage who exercises any kind of civilized restraint, Grant’s character is one of the least memorable. He’s upstaged by buffoons like Felicien Mallefille, another of Sand’s discarded lovers and tutor to her two children. Mallefille behaves like a parody of a character from one of Sand’s own novels. When she finally shoots him in the arm after he’s challenged Chopin to a duel, their exchange is marvelous:
Mallefille: How could you?
Sand: It was easy. You’re a menace to art.
Julian Sands and Bernadette Peters play the roles of Franz Liszt and Countess d’Agoult; a relationship utterly lacking in the spiritual fire that linked Sand and Chopin. The countess’s is the shallow rebellion of a woman who has abandoned her aristocratic life to share the bohemian existence of the romantic artist, only to find she has no stomach for it. The relationship naturally degenerates into one of nasty mutual recrimination (“You destroyed my life”—”You destroyed my talent.”).
Emma Thompson also has a fine role as the Duchess D’Antan, a wealthy young woman married off to a boorish husband and condemned to spend the rest of her life in the cultural wasteland of her husband’s country estate. She invites Chopin, Delacroix, etc. out for a fortnight of culture, at her expense. What she fails to understand is the contempt that artists in Sand’s circle feel for people in her position; and if you want to see how good an actress Emma Thompson is, watch the expressions of confusion and hurt which play across her face as she watches Sand & Co. stage a skit which she gradually realizes makes a mockery of her hospitality.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
I’ve little to add to my original review, for the simple reason that I know no more about Chopin and George Sand now as I did back then. I’ve listened to and appreciated more of Chopin’s work in the intervening years, but have never read a biography. I’m ashamed to admit that the only George Sand novel I ever read was back in my university days. There are a few on my bookshelves waiting patiently and making me feel guilty.
Impromptu remains one of my favorite films, based largely on the quality of its cast—Hugh Grant, Judy Davis, Emma Thompson, Julian Sands, Bernadette Peters, Mandy Patinkin. I still love the scene in the film where Sand lies under Chopin’s piano to bask in the miracle of his music. It’s the impulsive, naïve gesture of a true fan—a touching tribute to both her devotion and to Chopin’s genius. If she and Chopin were alive today, she’d make sure he had a website that even Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen devotees would envy.
I was also struck by the scene of the play at the Duchess d’Antan’s country home. Easy as it is to target the sins of the wealthy and the nouveaux riche, the play also demonstrates the casual cruelty of artists who have nothing but contempt for their patrons. Épater la bourgeoisie: an artistic rallying cry, but also the grounds for a toxic relationship, tasting of bile, leaching poisons. Sand is enthralled with her own wit, Chopin is appalled by her heartlessness.
If you don’t recognize the name of Impromptu’s director, James Lapine, it’s not your fault. He continues to work as a director, but has only a half a dozen film credits since 1991—four of them for television productions. There has to be a story there.
Kudos to writer Sarah Kernochan, a talented artist with two Academy Awards, three albums, a couple of novels, and an autobiography. Director James Lapine is her husband.
I’ve just discovered that there is a 2002 Polish film, Chopin: Desire for Love, directed by Jerzy Antczak, which covers the same ground as Impromptu. YouTube appears to have a full version, subtitled in Spanish (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OL_Wwo5W1Zs). Antczak’s film appears to have been a labour of love, and I look forward to see how it compares to James Lapine’s production. Stay tuned.