Scandalous Movie Review: Impromptu

Impromptu (1991), directed by James Lapine

Judy Davis - George Sand
Hugh Grant - Frédéric Chopin
Mandy Patinkin - Alfred de Musset

Bernadette Peters - Marie D'Agoult
Julian Sands - Franz Liszt
Ralph Brown - Eugène Delacroix
Georges Corraface - Felicien Mallefille
Anton Rodgers- Duke D'Antan
Emma Thompson - Duchess D'Antan
Anna Massey - George Sand's Mother

Since getting divorced, the successful and notorious writer of sensational romance novels George Sand, has been working on her memoirs. On her way to visit her friend the Countess Marie d'Agoult and her lover Liszt, she hears Chopin's music and falls in love.

In her romantic pursuit of the sensitive Chopin, George is advised by Marie that she must act like a man pursuing a woman, though she is also advised to avoid damaging his health by not pursuing him at all. With this advice Sand is betrayed by Marie who steals a letter that George writes to Chopin and signs her own name.

Sand meets Chopin in the French countryside at the house of the Duchess d'Antan, a foolish aspiring socialite who invites artists from Paris to her salon in order to feel cosmopolitan. Sand invites herself, not knowing that several of her former lovers are also in attendance. A small play is written by Alfred de Musset satirizing the aristocracy, Chopin protests, de Musset bellows and a fireplace explosion ensues. Eventually Sand wins over Chopin when she proves that she wrote the letter, reciting its words to him passionately, and giving him a copy of her memoir in which the text of the letter appears.

Chopin is then challenged to a duel by one of Sand's ex-lovers. He faints during the face-off. Sand finishes the duel for him and nurses him back to health in the countryside, solidifying their relationship. Near the end of the movie, Sand and Chopin dedicate a volume of music to the countess, although this only suggests that she has had an affair with Chopin, causing a falling-out with her lover Liszt. Sand and Chopin depart for Majorca, relieved to escape the competitive nature of artistic alliances and jealousies in Paris.

This movie is one of my favorites. It is light and bubbly like the best champagne. Judy Davis is superb as George Sand, trying to juggle old lovers while trying to pursue Chopin. George Sand is described as being largely temperamental, rashly creative, fiery and opinionated - George pushed the limits in all kinds of ways, and Davis perfectly captures those qualities. The scene where she arrives downstairs for dinner at the house party dressed in the Polish national colors, and her first meeting with Chopin where she is laying under the piano listening to his music are two of my favorites. The revelation to me with this movie is Hugh Grant. After years of seeing him play either cads or stuttering leads in romantic comedies, it is surprising to see that he can actually act as well as do a credible Polish accent. Everyone in the film is well cast from Emma Thompson as aspiring socialite (by way of Mayfair) and Anton Rodgers as her husband to Julian Sands as Liszt (whatever happened to his career).

But is the film historically accurate? Well partly. By the time George Sand met Chopin, she had married at 21, had two children, left her husband for another man, and embarked on her writng career. Although the film claims that she was divorced from her husband, she was not. Divorce was not easy to achieve in 19th century France. She'd had a two year affair with Alfred de Musset which ended badly the year before she met Chopin. de Musset tells Chopin at one point in the film that Sand is frigid, which apparently was true. She was chronically short of money, since the money she received from her husband for support, was not enough to support her lifestyle. It was one of the reasons that she turned to writing for a living. And she did dress like a man because she found it easier to get around as a woman alone.

Chopin and George Sand actually met at party at Marie d'Agoult's home, and Chopin was initially repulsed by Sand at first. He told Ferdinand Hiller, "What a repulsive woman Sand is! But is she really a woman? I am inclined to doubt it." Sand did write a letter but not to Chopin, to a mutual friend of theirs. It was thirty-two pages and it, George debated whether or not to end a current affair for Chopin and whether or not Chopin was involved with someone else. If he were, she didn't want to interfere. The film is not clear what year it is, but Chopin and George Sand met in 1836 and by 1837, they were involved. The film seems to take place over a longer period of time since Marie manages to have two more children during the course of the film. Chopin did dedicate his second set of Etudes to Marie but probably not to make Liszt jealous. Marie was also divorced by the time Chopin and Sand met, unlike in the film, where she claims that she cannot get a divorce. There is a scene in the film where Sand picks up a miniature of a woman who Chopin says that he was engaged. Her name was Maria Wodzińska, and the engagement was called off because of his ill health.

What the film does capture so well is the personality of the major players which is the reason why it seems entirely reasonable that the whole episode could have happened. Although it seems as if the house party is a whose who of artistic Paris, they were all really friends. Delacroix painted George Sand and Chopin together. It is interesting that most of the films involving their relationship make it seem that Sand was so much older than Chopin when it reality she was only 6 years his senior. Davis and Hugh Grant seem much closer to the ages of the actual people they are portraying. It is interesting to watch Chopin become intrigued with George inspite of himself.

Chopin and George Sand were together for ten years, only splitting up two years before his death. They spent a great deal of time at Nohant, her country estate. Here Chopin could concentrate on his music which he couldn't do in Paris. The final rupture came when Chopin sided with her daughter Solange against Sand, who wanted her daughter to marry someone else. The relationship was also marred by Chopin's ill health. Sand found herself constantly playing nursemaid to her lover which eventually began to bore her. Through manipulation, Sand attempted to isolate Chopin in Majorca which caused him ill health which led to his death.

Chopin died in 1849 and is buried in Pere Lachaise cemetary in Paris. Sand lived on for another 28 years before dying in 1876.


Lucy said…
Oh I'd love to see this! Chopin is one of my very favourites.
Lidian said…
This sounds like a fabulous movie, thank you so much for this review. I am definitely putting it on my list!
I'm glad you all like the review. It is a fun movie. Make a little picnic in front of the TV with some wine and cheese and enjoy!
Anonymous said…
I, too, was pleasantly surprised (almost shocked, honestly) to see Hugh Grant play this role so beautifully. I have grown so disgusted with his "sillyass Brit" act that I usually refuse to see movies that feature him! I'm so glad I made an exception in this case.

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