Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Neglected Gems #14: Impromptu (1991)

Hugh Grant as Chopin and Judy Davis as George Sands, in Impromptu

It was a brilliant stroke to cast Judy Davis as the nineteenth-century French novelist George Sand in the 1991 Impromptu. Resolutely bohemian and independent-minded, Sand, who wore suits, smoked cigars and took on a series of lovers, was such a proto-modernist figure that Davis’s very contemporariness – her driven moodiness and tremulous fervor, the eroticized fullness of her presence – seems jarringly right for this woman, as it did when she played a version of D.H. Lawrence’s wife Frieda in Kangaroo. Impromptu, written by Sarah Kernochan and directed by James Lapine (Kernochan’s husband), is a farce populated by celebrities – Sand, Chopin (Hugh Grant), Lizst (Julian Sands) and his mistress, Countess Marie d’Agoult (Bernadette Peters), the playwright Alfred de Musset (Mandy Patinkin) and the painter Eugène Delacroix (Ralph Brown). And Davis’s Sand, offering her love to Chopin with an extravagant combination of sensual abandon and religious devotion, is its emotional core. She hangs outside the closed door of the study where she first hears him play, transported in every fiber of her being; she crawls into his room through the window and lies on the rug, receiving his genius like holy water; she fixes her deep, deep blue eyes on the consumptive composer and begs him to take her strength, which she has too much of. As Davis plays her, this woman is utterly fantastic. Completely conscious, completely self-possessed, she plans every attack on Chopin’s resistance (he finds her terrifying, her finds her appalling). When she thinks he’s turned off by her masculine attire, she shocks everyone by appearing in an evening gown (in the colors of the Polish flag, as a tribute to his homeland). When Marie, scheming to win him herself, cunningly advises her to play the male aggressor and win him as if he were a woman, she shows up at his tailor’s. (Jenny Beavan designed the stunning costumes.) Davis reads Kernochan’s hilarious one-liners with the sureness of a first-rank classical comic actress. What makes her performance extraordinary, however, is the emotional intensity that braces Sand’s outlandish behavior. She can segue in and out of farce on a dime, but when she tells Chopin she loves him, thrusting herself forward as if she were bouncing off some centrifugal force that’s taken hold of her, there’s an ache in her voice and an ache in her wide, naked eyes.

After all the inflated, implausible movie biographies produced about the lives of serious composers (including the 1945 A Song to Remember, with Cornel Wilde as Chopin and Merle Oberon, and the 1960 Song Without End, with Dirk Bogarde as Lizst and Genevieve Page as Marie d’Agoult), it’s a relief to have these famous figures’ follies rendered in a high-kicking comedy that makes no pretense at getting the facts right (Kernochan’s script is largely invention) and focuses on how idiotically these stars of the 1830s conducted themselves. If you take Lizst and Chopin very seriously, this probably isn’t the film for you; Kernochan and Lapine portray them and their friends as possessing no greater dignity – or, for the most part, no more elevated motives – than the bumbling thieves in the classic heist comedy Big Deal on Madonna Street. Sands plays Lizst as a stiff with a temper whose only talent is for technical sleight of hand – every time we hear him on the piano, he’s whipping off chromatic scales. Chopin’s music, on the other hand, is beautiful and soulful, but he’s absurdly fragile – a trembling, crippled bird, unnerved by the thought of sexual adventure, hopping all over the room in fright whenever George enters, permanently awash in embarrassment. Grant is charming, and his Polish accent is a delightful joke, right on the cusp of Saturday Night Live. But he brings something tender to his Chopin creation, too, and his moral outrage at the thoughtlessness of his companions has the force of conviction.

Emma Thompson in Impromptu
Their insensitivity is pretty amusing, though; it’s great fun to watch a movie in which even consumption can be the target of a good joke. When George praises Chopin’s music, pronouncing it fit for the ages, Marie quips, “The only thing that’s eternal about him is his cough.” When she passes the news of George’s infatuation on to Lizst, he replies, incredulously, “The Polish corpse?” When a duchess (Emma Thompson) who’s mad on the arts and on scandal, invites the whole crew to her country house for two weeks, and the incessant rain puts everyone in a foul mood, they get up a little avant-garde theatrical to fend off the boredom, and it turns out to be a rather pointed spoof, performed in whiteface, of her and her distracted husband (Anton Rodgers), who’s obsessed with hunting. Thompson is superbly funny as the Duchesse d’Antan, who greets her guests decked out as a shepherdess and has her servants place laurel wreaths on their heads. But her finest (and one affecting) moment comes when she sees herself ridiculed on stage by her guests.

Kernochan muffs the structure. The country section (which is exquisitely shot by Bruno de Keyzer) feels like the movie’s climax, as it generally is in a farcical roundelay like this one – as well as George and Chopin and Marie and Lizst, de Musset, a one-time paramour of George’s and currently her bitterest enemy, is in attendance, and the lover she’s been trying to get rid of, the obstinate, persistent Mallefille (George Corraface), comes running after her, determined to catch her in flagrante with Chopin and challenge his rival to a duel. But the picture keeps going after the fairly clumsy dissipation of this episode, and you feel a little disoriented when time passes and George appears at Chopin’s door, claiming that Marie, whom she’d enlisted as a go-between at the Duchess’s, passed off George’s love letter to Chopin as her own. (We know that, but when did George find out?) As a piece of direction, Impromptu could be more fluid and even-handed; sometimes Lapine, making his first movie (he’s celebrated as a stage director), makes all the right decisions in terms of tone and coaching the actors. Patinkin is light and free of mannerism; he looks like he’s on holiday. (More recently he’s been doing some of the best work of his career, on the TV series Homeland.) And Peters, with her crinkly, bewildered takes, her carving-knife bitchiness and twinkling façade of guilelessness, is a wonder. When Chopin, who has spotted a line from the love letter in George’s latest novel, confronts Marie with her duplicitousness, Peters makes the Countess’s futile attempts at denial moving. Suddenly she’s like a caught butterfly, pinioned by the truth.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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