Davis brings energy George Sand would have demanded

MOVIE REVIEW

May 16, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Why can't a woman be more like a man? One reason, as George Sand (nee Amandine Aurore Dupin), found out was that nobody liked it very much.

Sand, played with a dervish's intensity by the splendid Australian actress Judy Davis in "Impromptu," gave up on her woman's name and her feminity early, stomped around Paris in the 1830s chewing on a cigar and dressed like a cavalry officer on leave. Of course her talent -- she was a brilliant novelist -- enabled her to get away with such scandalous behavior, which made women quiver and men hide and about which everybody gossiped deliciously.

"Impromptu," which opens today at the Charles, covers Sand's forceful seduction of the meek Polish composer Frederic Chopin, a fragile lily who wrote music as if God had taken up temporary residence in his skull but who trilled hysterically at the approach of such elemental realities as sex. Chopin is played by Hugh Grant as a combination of Ivan Lendl and Tiny Tim. It's like watching a mongoose stalk a rabbit.

For a period piece, "Impromptu" has a lot of energy. Alfred Hitchcock once said he could never work in a costume drama becausehe could never imagine the characters going to the bathroom, but director James Lapine creates people capable of going to the bathroom if a bathroom were available and just letting it rip if one weren't. The movie feels authentic rather than stilted; it seethes.

The scene is the literary milieu of Paris and an isolated Southern France chateau where an ambitious but pathetic noblewoman attempts to curry favor with the intelligentsia by offering them free eats. It works. (It always does.)

These cynical geniuses descend on the Duchess d'Antan's digs and eat her out of house and home, helping themselves to anything (even to her). In response, they offer her large dosages of contempt and indifference, proving that once again, no good deed goes unpunished.

Sand has arrived because, having heard Chopin's divine music, she has decided she must possess his ethereal soul. Alas, the road there lies through his spindly body. Among other obstacles: her former lover de Musset (Mandy Patinkin) who, still crushed by her abandonment, loves causing mischief.

Grant is wonderfully wispy, Patinkin is hilarious, particularly as he unmasks himself at the countess'

dinner to defend, as he puts it with exquisite irony, Ms. Sand's "shattered honor." But no one is better than Judy Davis.

Focused, a literary and sexual buccaneer, she broadcasts the kind of take-charge power more akin to an Arnold Schwarzenegger or a Steven Seagal. She blows through society like Hemingway loose among the virgins at a girl's school. Yet she's never far from her own feminine identity and vulnerability. Her theory is clearly -- if you can't lick 'em, join 'em. She's joined 'em, and how. She's all man.

'Impromptu'

Starring Judy Davis and Hugh Grant.

Directed by James Lapine.

Released by Hemdale.

Rated PG-13.

***

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