MOVIE REVIEW : Great Artists Turn Dull in ‘Impromptu’

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Judy Davis is such a powerful actress that, like Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn before her, she requires roles that do justice to her fierceness. She demands great roles.

In “Impromptu” (selected theaters), Davis plays George Sand, the most popular and notorious female writer of the early 19th Century. It ought to be a great role for her but the movie is too shallow and flighty to do her justice.

Sand was more than a great writer; she was a central figure in the Romantic whirligig that also included Liszt, Chopin and Delacroix. And her love life was as pronounced a part of her celebrity as her writings. Sand’s career was a marvel of prodigiousness. Not only did she turn out nearly a hundred volumes of prose, but she also found the time to cut a swath through an imposing number of high-profile lovers, including her famous eight-year liaison with Chopin.


The Chopin affair is at the center of “Impromptu.” For a while at the beginning of the movie, when Sand is prowling the halls of Liszt’s home, listening in on Chopin (Hugh Grant) behind closed doors as he tinkles the ivories, the film has a camp sprightliness. Most movies about famous artists are such artery-hardening affairs that the initial offhandedness is tonic.

It turns out to be too offhanded, too lightweight for the heavyweights involved.

It ought to be refreshing to see a movie where famous geniuses aren’t acting famous but, really, it’s a bit much having such luminaries as Sand, Chopin, Delacroix (Ralph Brown) and Alfred de Musset (Mandy Patinkin) cavorting about like headstrong nincompoops. They seem to be taking part in a musical comedy that never happens. I kept expecting the characters to burst into song, which would have been an improvement on the arch, puffy dialogue.

(Cole Porter’s lyrics about Sand from his musical “Nymph Errant” might have provided a good starting point. Sample: “Georgia Sand was an authoress / Who all through her life had great success/Not only with her books / But also with her looks.”)

The film’s musical-without-portfolio quality may owe something to the fact that it was directed by James Lapine, the librettist-director of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George” and “Into the Woods.” Lapine, making his feature film debut, doesn’t have the technique to turn this amatory whirl into a lyrical roundelay. When he introduces the music of Chopin and Liszt (Julian Sands) into the proceedings, the effect isn’t revelatory, it’s discordant. It’s impossible to believe that such sounds could have issued from such twits.

“Amadeus” may have paved the way for this nincompoop-genius approach. “Impromptu” (rated PG-13 for mild adult situations) isn’t quite as rollicking as that film, though. Its geniuses, particularly Chopin, are still caught between conscious, high-flying camp and an older, more tortuous theatrical tradition--the Master Thespian tradition that requires a famous artist to look blazingly into the future while coughing despondently into his handkerchief.

With the possible exception of Bernadette Peters’ Marie d’Agoult, the only character in “Impromptu” who comes across as three-dimensional is Sand. That may have more to do with Davis’ performance than with the role. Sand outraged polite society with her forthrightness and her penchant for wearing men’s clothes. Lapine, and his screenwriter Sarah Kernochan, clearly intend her to be a feminist precursor, but Davis is smart enough to muffle the role’s “modern” side. The way Davis plays her, Sand’s dismissal of protocol is an act of sensibility and moral outrage. Her disdain for fashion is a way of saving herself for the things that matter in life--art and the affairs of the heart.


If the filmmakers had surrounded Davis with performers who shared her fierce zest, then her passion might not have seemed so wearying after awhile. Davis is striking but her tumult is all in a vacuum.

It’s inconceivable that Hugh Grant’s Chopin--so dull, so insignificantly frail--could have inspired Sand’s soul. Only his music could do that, and so we are made to wonder why, if Sand already had the music, she needed the man too. The unstated theme in “Impromptu” is that these great geniuses keep confusing the art with the person, with disastrous results. It’s a great subject for a comedy, but the people who made “Impromptu” don’t seem to be quite in on the joke.


Judy Davis: George Sand

Hugh Grant: Frederic Chopin

Mandy Patinkin: Alfred de Musset

Julian Sands: Franz Liszt

A Hemdale Films release of a Sovereign Pictures presentation. Director James Lapine. Producers Stuart Oken and Dazniel A. Sherkow. Executive producer Jean Nachbaur. Screenplay by Sarah Kernochan. Cinematographer Bruno De Keyzer. Editor Michael Ellis. Costumes Jenny Beavan. Art director Gerard Daoudal. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG-13 (mild adult situations).