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By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 03, 1991


James Lapine
Judy David;
Hugh Grant;
Mandy Patinkin;
Bernadette Peters;
Julian Sands;
Emma Thompson
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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As the author George Sand in James Lapine's "Impromptu," Judy Davis makes her entrances as if she were straddling a cyclone. She doesn't just walk in, she blows in on a torrent of extravagant self-assurance and wild temperament.

Sand, who's the locus of this blissfully high-spirited romp about the circle of writers and musicians in 1830s Paris, never does anything halfway; her life is an experiment in full-throttle, passionate immersion, and that's why Davis is the ideal actress for the part. She's the most atmospheric of actors, perhaps the only one around capable of streaking the screen with lightning.

"Impromptu" is a celebration of romanticism, of joyful release, big emotions, bohemianism and the splendid pursuit of art. Most of its main characters -- Sand, Franz Liszt, the poet Alfred de Musset, Eugene Delacroix -- are impenitent hedonists, bratty, self-indulgent and given to florid bad temper; in other words, they're gorgeous monsters, and the greatest pleasure in the film is that Lapine and his screenwriter (and wife) Sarah Kernochan have loosened their reins and let their characters run free of all constraints, including moral judgment and (from all appearances) historical accuracy.

Sand's love life -- including her affairs with de Musset (Mandy Patinkin), her children's tutor (George Corraface) and especially the composer Frederic Chopin (Hugh Grant) -- serves as the film's chaotic playing field. Paris, it seems, is littered with the broken hearts of her discarded lovers, so much so that a friend refers to her as "that graveyard." As a young girl at the film's beginning, she prays to the spirits of the forest, telling them that she wants to know "the meaning of life" and to find "perfect, perfect love." Both, as we later discover, have eluded her, though her pursuit of each has been diligent and sincere, if not a trifle reckless.

Her newest, brightest hope is the ethereal, consumptive Chopin, in whose music she hears the answers to her prayers. A great many obstacles, though, stand in the way of her goal, not the least of which is Chopin himself, who is so sickly that he seems to exist in a ghostly realm beyond the corporeal. Still, Sand remains undeterred, even after an accidental first meeting in which the Polish maestro dismisses her from his rooms after first discovering her hidden away under his piano, her face and clothes still caked with the dirt from an afternoon riding accident.

An invitation to a fortnight at the country estate of the Duke and Duchess d'Antan (Anton Rodgers and the divinely pickled Emma Thompson) brings together this collection of cracked eminences, and Lapine (perhaps taking his cue from Renoir's "Rules of the Game") uses the setting as an opportunity for a kind of droll sexual roundelay in which love letters are mishandled and identities confused with the dizzy precision of a Marx Brothers movie. Lapine's stage training -- he's best known for his work with Stephen Sondheim -- comes in handy here; he knows how to move bodies around without breaking his comic stride.

He also knows how to showcase the virtues of his best actors (and, in the case of Julian Sands as Liszt, disguise the deficiencies of his lesser ones). As Liszt's mistress, Marie d'Agoult, Bernadette Peters is a pouty gambit master who's friendly to Sand but at the same time envious of her freewheeling independence. What she's most afraid of is that in getting Chopin, Sand is getting a greater composer than hers, and when she plots against their union, she sets her mouth with the grim determination of a child preparing the overthrow of her dolly kingdom. As de Musset, Patinkin acts with the same nutty panache that he showed in "The Princess Bride," and he gives his drunken acting-out the proper mix of glamour and pathos.

Grandiose acting-out seems something that Lapine has a full working knowledge of. He feels tremendous affection for these gifted louts, not so much because they are talented as because they have such a voracious appetite for life. And he invites us to join him in his enthusiasm for them. They live large, these pre-Beat hipsters, with little regard for convention. They have a child's sense of the world as their playpen combined with an artist's lust for the sublime.

Nowhere is this made more clear than when Davis's Sand surrenders herself to Chopin's music. What we read in her expression is a spirit of ecstatic devotion that is both worldly and transcendent. God is in those notes, and if chaos is the price to be paid, then let there be chaos. Lapine himself supplies us with a taste of those transcendent pleasures. He gives us what all good art must -- he gives us a sense of greater possibilities.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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