IMPROMPTU

 : “You must win him as a man wins a woman.”

Poor Mallefille – you really have to pity him. Not only has he become the lover of the woman who employed him to tutor her children (and whose reputation is hard to take for his pathologically jealous nature anyway); only to be dumped again in short order, when she has had enough of him and his fits of jealousy. Not only does he have to watch her exchange witticisms and confidences with a host of other men, many of them belonging to the Parisian art circles where he himself will never be taken seriously (and God knows what else they may be exchanging or have exchanged in the past). Not only is he being bossed around by a woman who has taken a male pen name, insists on dressing in men’s clothes, refuses to use a woman’s saddle when riding (and what a horsewoman she is!) and prefers an afternoon out hunting to one sipping tea in the company of other ladies of society. No: after having taken all that, and having dared to demand the satisfaction to which he feels so justly entitled from her latest object of romantic interest, one feeble Polish composer named Chopin – only to see the guy fainting before the obligatory count has even gotten to “ten” and never raise his pistol at all – what does the wretched woman do? She seizes Chopin’s weapon, fires at Mallefille, injures his arm and responds coolly, when he has finally overcome his shock and disbelief and inquires how, after all their time together, she could do such a thing: “It was easy. You’re a menace to the future of art.”

As this movie would have it, the above scene (never to be revealed to Chopin, in order not to hurt his pride) brought about the final turning point in one of history’s most famous love stories, the romance between prolific French writer George Sand (born 1804 as Amandine Aurore Lucile Dupin and married, in 1822, to Baron Casimir Dudevant, whom she left in 1835) and quintessential Romantic composer and Polish musical prodigy Frédéric (Fryderyk) Chopin, six years her junior, who after a life-long struggle with his health succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 39 years. While taking some liberties with the real course of events, Impromptu does portray their relationship up to their departure for Majorca, as well as the story’s backdrop in 19th century Paris and rural France, with an admirably light touch and in loving detail; marvelously framed by a score consisting almost exclusively of pieces by Chopin himself. Judy Davis and a deliciously young and fragile Hugh Grant are the perfect embodiment of Sand and her “Chopinet” – she, a feisty no-nonsense woman used to fighting for her place in the world, who can nevertheless lose herself completely in Chopin’s music, which she considers divine; he, sickly, uptight and at first severely taken aback by her manner which so contradicts accepted female behavior that he almost doubts she is a woman at all: a remark actually attributed to Chopin and resounding in the movie’s interpretation of their initial encounter, after Sand has hidden in his room to hear him play and leaves her hiding place when he stops, pleading with him to continue, only to be rebuked by a seriously upset Chopin: “Rumor has it that you are a woman, so I must ask you to leave my private chambers. … This is ridiculously improper – and frightening as well!”

Although Sand and Chopin were really introduced to each other by their joint friend Franz Liszt and his companion Marie d’Agoult (here portrayed with fervor and panache by Julian Sands and Bernadette Peters), the movie ingeniously places their first meeting onto the country estate of the Duke d’Antan and his wife Claudette, self-declared patroness of the arts (played by an exuberant Emma Thompson, who milks the role for all it’s worth and then some), who has assembled the cream of the Parisian arts scene; besides Chopin, Liszt and Marie most notably Sand‘s former lover, poet Alfred de Musset (Mandy Patinkin) and painter Eugène Delacroix (Ralph Brown). Sand, who is actually not among the invitees, spontaneously proceeds to invite herself when she hears that Chopin will be among the guests, because she has wanted to meet him ever since she first heard him play in the Paris salon of Baroness Laginsky (Elizabeth Spriggs) – thus guaranteeing plenty of tumultuous scenes between herself and de Musset as well as between the latter and Mallefille (Georges Corraface), who (likewise uninvited) appears shortly after her in dogged pursuit of the woman who has recently dumped him; a fact he is patently unwilling to accept.

Although initially rejected by Chopin, Sand is not in the least willing to give up on him; and she greedily accepts Marie’s advice after their return to Paris: “He is not a man; he’s a woman. … You must win him as a man wins a woman. If anyone can do it, you can.” And while Marie’s counsel is far less disinterested and well-meaning than George thinks, in the end her new tactics do the trick; albeit only after a series of heated encounters between the two would-be lovers, Chopin and de Musset, and Chopin and Marie; and not before Sand has lost her mother (Anna Massey), her most undying champion. Chopin and Sand eventually become friends and – we are told – finally lovers after Mallefille has forever left the battlefield in shame.

Although there would be an estrangement between the star-crossed lovers shortly before Chopin’s death, he did remain, as Sand wrote in her autobiography, the greatest love of her life; and in turn, the years they spent together are considered by many the most fertile years of his musical career. They both will live forever in their works – and this movie, which unfortunately went virtually undiscovered upon its 1991 release, is a wonderful, gentle reminder of the wealth of creativity and emotion they had to share.

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: C.L.G. Films / Sovereign Pictures (1991)
  • Director: James Lapine
  • Executive Producer: Jean Nachbaur
  • Screenplay: Sarah Kernochan
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Bruno de Keyzer
Cast
  • 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: Félicien Mallefille
  • Anton Rodgers: Duke d’Antan
  • Emma Thompson: Duchess d’Antan
  • Anna Massey: George Sand’s Mother
  • Elizabeth Spriggs: Baroness Laginsky
  • John Savident: Buloz
  • David Birkin: Maurice
  • Nimer Rashed: Didier
  • Fiona Vincente: Solange
  • Lucy Speed: Young Aurora

 

Major Awards and Honors

Independent Spirit Awards (1991)
  • Best Female Lead: Judy Davis

 

Links

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