Home Pge, Site Index, Search, Help

‘Madame Sousatzka’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 14, 1988

John Schlesinger's "Madame Sousatzka" is as charming and fanciful as it is impossible to pigeonhole.

Perhaps this yarn about a crusty London piano matriarch (Shirley MacLaine) and her aspiring student Manek (Navin Chowdhry) is like a good read, where everything ties in and connects seamlessly. You go back to identify the book's secret, but you just find yourself reading the whole darn thing again.

It's that effortless wholeness that makes this collaboration between Schlesinger and cowriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala a director's and a writer's movie. Moreover, "Madame" is MacLaine's picture -- she seizes her role with a cold-steel grimness that would humble even Barbra Streisand -- but she is only part of an overall effect.

Schlesinger and Jhabvala weave wonders from a "small film" fabric, using swatches of personalities, relics and attitudes from England, old Russia and India to create a cross pattern of Old World manners, style and art against a new society of quick-hit money-mongering and pseudo-talented poseurs.

When Russian emigre' Sousatzka takes on 15-year-old Indian-Brit Manek, she's championing artistic purity against the philistines -- Manek's money-grubbing mother (Shabana Azmi) and agent/promoter Ronnie Blum (a seedy, sweet-voiced Leigh Lawson), who want to see Manek raking in concert proceeds immediately.

Madame S. lives in a crazy-quilt group house. Above her lives beautiful, sweet but talentless singer Jenny (Twiggy) who dreams futilely of being discovered; below live the kooky Lady Emily (Dame Peggy Ashcroft) and the amiable, well-mannered pederast Dr. Cordle (Geoffrey Bayldon), who treats Madame's students for back posture and likes to saunter around in dark alleys.

Meanwhile, real estate moguls from the modern world buy up the street outside.

The movie's main cloth, of course, is the cloistered world of Madame Sousatzka -- an indoor universe of jewels, faded silks, candles and photographs of former, and favored, students. A combination of Miss Havisham, Blanche Dubois and, quite possibly, the Wicked Witch of the East (and you hope MacLaine is acting), she educates precocious Manek with a fiery rigor. "This is where the music comes from," she tells him, pointing to his abdomen.

There will be further spiritual Henry-Higgins counseling as well as a predictably climactic recital. But Schlesinger never loses sight of the colorful human threads, and he sews up this tapestry with a touching conclusion that shows Madame's sad and beautiful old world in transition.

Copyright The Washington Post

Back to the top

Home Page, Site Index, Search, Help