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'Madame Sousatzka' (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 14, 1988

Shirley MacLaine brings lifetimes of experience to the title role of "Madame Sousatzka." She has such vitality, in fact, she could be the tyrannical piano teacher reincarnate. Haunted by her own failed career and her mother's rigidity, Madame Sousatzka drives her prodigies unmercifully. She's the Vince Lombardi of the Steinway, tough but intriguing in MacLaine's dexterous interpretation.

John Schlesinger cowrote and directed this engrossing, musically enriching drama -- an intimate and amusing adaptation of Bernice Rubens' novel. Though it has a few rough spots and runs a touch long, "Madame Sousatzka" counters with Old World charm. There's the touch of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala of "A Room With a View," who cowrote this parlor-sized, British-set thriller.

Despite its predominant heroine, the story turns on the coming of age of a 15-year-old prodigy, Manek. A first-generation Brit of Indian descent, Manek is not a wimp or a know-it-all brat. As engagingly played by screen-newcomer Navin Chowdhry, he's more like the Karate Kid with a keyboard.

The handsome youngster becomes the prize in a contest between his sexy, manipulative young mother (Shabana Azmi) and his possessive mentor. Actually Manek is more interested in Jenny (Twiggy), the leggy pop singer upstairs. But he gives up extracurricular activities to meet Madame Sousatzka's demands for perfection. The Russian American is London's most controversial fixture. "I don't just teach piano, I teach how to live," she tells Manek's struggling mother. She gives Manek lessons in manners and even picks out his clothes.

Though wed to the past, Madame Sousatzka hides from the years under jewels, flamboyance and too much rouge. She has the look of a fringed piano scarf, and her eccentric personality the feel of cracked, old ivories. Her apartment/studio is a nest of oriental carpets in a rundown Victorian row house. Developers are pressuring the landlady (Peggy Ashcroft) to sell. Gentrification proceeds apace, the 80-year-old landlady moves on, but Madame Sousatzka will not be moved. She is rigidity personified.

Her own career as a concert pianist was demolished along with her psyche by her own domineering teacher/mother (Carol Gillies). The mother haunts the flashbacks; she's as creepy as the housekeeper in "Rebecca," ever critical of Madame Sousatzka. Her harsh methods are her mother's. "Allegro, allegro ... You sound like an old man shuffling," she derides Manek. He practices till his fingers bleed, but she will not concede his virtuosity. She is afraid that Manek will leave her, like her other best-loved students.

Manek shrivels under her criticism, but praise comes from another quarter. Jenny's boyfriend (Leigh Lawson), a talent agent, overhears Manek and begins wooing him as a client. Madame Sousatzka says she will disown him if he plays publicly too soon, but his mother is fired from her catering job and money becomes an issue. Now Manek must choose between art a` la Sousatzka or money a` la Michael Feinstein. Manek screws up his new-found courage for a rite of passage in A minor. And Madame Sousatzka, well, she learns her lesson too late.

An exasperating disciplinarian, Madame Sousatzka is the sort of figure treasured decades later. Like a drill instructor in battle, she is appreciated most in the heat of concert. As with the selfish, childish mother in "Terms of Endearment," MacLaine sweetens the character with wit and vulnerability. MacLaine says that Sousatzka took over her body from take one to the final close-up. "There I was with Sousatzka's body {she gained 25 pounds}, Sousatzka's makeup, Sousatzka's face. And suddenly no Sousatzka," the actress said when she was in Washington last week, giving credit for the performance to the entity that came and went.

That makes "Madame Sousatzka" the opportunity of an after lifetime.

Copyright The Washington Post

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