Once in a while when I see the previews for a film, it gives me the wrong impression, and makes me decide to stay away. This is what happened to me back in 1991 with Impromptu, a film by James Lapine about the notorious and influential French woman novelist George Sand. The previews made it look silly and trivial, and so I avoided it, only to discover my mistake later when it showed up on TV. Well, you live and learn.
The story, based on true events in the 1830s, tells of how Sand, played by Judy Davis, becomes infatuated with the composer-pianist Frederic Chopin, played by Hugh Grant. But her double-dealing friend Marie (Bernadette Peters), who is the lover of another composer-pianist, Franz Liszt (Julian Sands) embarks on a jealous intrigue in order to prevent the match.
You might be forgiven for having low expectations of a comedy romance about famous literary figures. Sarah Kernochan’s screenplay, although hewing fairly well to historical fact, doesn’t go too deep into the artistic concerns of the characters, but has quite a bit of fun with their public personalities instead. On those terms, the film is more entertaining than I had reason to expect, and most of the credit goes to Judy Davis.
With a combination of fierce intelligence, wit, and passion, Davis makes you believe in Sand as an object of perpetual fascination for male artists, and a figure of scandal for the more conventionally minded. Davis is certainly better looking than George Sand was, if we are to judge by portraits, but in Hollywood terms she is not a “looker.” With great energy and conviction, this wonderful actress demonstrates how a brilliant mind and a strong character are more attractive than mere beauty.
Most of the first half of the film concerns a stay by Sand, Liszt, Marie, Chopin, and the painter Delacroix at the country home of a bourgeois lady with artistic pretensions, wonderfully played by Emma Thompson. Sand’s former lover Alfred de Musset (Mandy Patinkin) shows up, as well as her current pretty-boy companion, a jealous blockhead named Mailefille. A bedroom farce ensues, with Sand sneaking into Chopin’s room and making a bad impression, Musset crashing through a window on a horse, and an amateur theatrical that makes a fool out of the bewildered hostess. Yes, it’s all a bit silly, but witty and light-hearted enough to delight this film snob.
The second half of the picture takes its energy from the romantic interplay between Davis and Grant (here attempting a Polish accent), and this is all very enjoyable, culminating in a duel between Chopin and Mailefille that will make you laugh out loud.
Impromptu is one of those movies that if I happen upon it while channel surfing I end up watching it again, almost against my will. Although it doesn’t really convey the full range of thought or artistry of the 19th century author, it plays off the new sense of bohemian rebellion and female empowerment that Sand represented, to amusing effect. Judy Davis should have been a great star, I think, and this is one of the handful of films that demonstrates why.