'Impromptu' Is Light on Coherence, Heavy on Scandal

It's not that this film is bad, but the witty dialogue, solid acting, and lovely camerawork can't make up for it's tonal confusion or pacing.


Director: James Lapine
Cast: Judy Davis, Hugh Grant, Bernadette Peters
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year: 1991
US Release Date: 2015-10-27

“Impromptu” as a musical genre implies spontaneity, but much of Impromptu the film feels rehearsed. Granted, there are a number of things that it attempts -- and pulls off quite well -- but the film has trouble in doing anything new within the period romance genre. It’s fitting, in a way, given that period films appeal to a love of history and tradition, but compelling it is not.

The film is loosely based around the real-life affair between writer George Sand (played by Judy Davis) and pianist Frédéric Chopin (Hugh Grant). The courtship of the two is complicated and aided in equal measure by their social group, a motley collection of artists including playwright Alfred de Musset (Mandy Patinkin), writer Marie D’Agoult (Bernadette Peters), and pianist Franz Liszt (Julian Sands).

The strong assortment of acting talent plays heavily in the film’s favor. It’s no surprise to see names like Patinkin and Peters in the cast list. After all, the film’s director, James Lapine, is better known as a famed Broadway director, dramatist, and collaborator with Stephen Sondheim. Peters and Patinkin had both worked with him on Sunday in the Park With George, and the theater presence in the rest of the cast list (names like Emma Thompson and Anton Rodgers) clearly identifies Impromptu as coming from a theatrical sensibility.

The effect of this sensibility is twofold. On the one hand, it’s hard to deny that the actors are splendid. Julian Sands as Franz Liszt has a mystical aura on screen, making the character imposing, strange, and genius in a believable way. Hugh Grant plays Chopin as an utterly charming effete virtuoso. Peters excels as D’Agoult with her gleeful jealousy.

At the same time, watching the film sometimes feels like watching a play. Impromptu is, after all, a theatre director’s film debut, and it frequently feels like Lapine’s theatre method is being used too often in the film.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. However, the film exercises a lot of restraint and subtlety in its’ soundtrack, cinematography, and editing. It deliberately escapes the sweeping grandeur typical of period romance films, and yet the acting is just too broad for what’s going on in the rest of the film. It’s meant to be comedic, yes, but it comes off feeling confused. It’s constantly fighting between whether it wants to be intimate and realistic or goofy, and when it strays too far into the latter camp it weakens its punch.

Take as an example an early scene in which Sand sneaks into Chopin’s room. Chopin is forgivably creeped out when he notices Sand hiding under his piano as he plays, but the ensuing dialogue is so over-the-top that it can’t really hold up to the tonal impression the film establishes. This ends up crippling the film, and the motivations for the blossoming relationship between our two leads become murky.

In fact, the progression of the film seems to be its main problem. There's very little feeling of forward momentum. A question seems to be constantly popping up in Impromptu: “Why?” We rarely get an answer. The narrative seems to be constantly shifting between characters, the overarching themes are unclear, and the very nature of the relationship between Sand and Chopin is, as mentioned, confusing. Instead, the film concerns itself more with scattered scandals: duels, incendiary plays, angry lovers.

On the one hand, it’s an admirable gamble to treat the material as more of a period slice-of-life then as a “story” per se. On the other hand, that’s a move more typical of theatre, where the interest stems more from watching characters interact then following a story to its resolution. Granted, watching these characters interact is wonderful, and the dialogue is packed with a lot of wit. But that doesn’t save the film. In a way, it makes the whole experience that much more disappointing. One wonders what more focus on plot would add.

Given those shortcomings, Impromptu can’t be called a winner. It’s not a terrible movie though. It’s a very solid effort, with a good cast, gorgeous locations, and a lovely use of the camera. It’s not perfect, but it’s worthwhile. George Sand is a wonderful heroine, and her defiance of restrictive gender expectations benefits the film by adding an element of proto-feminism to the story. But, true to the rest of the film, even the meaning of Sand’s rebellion is complicated by the ending of the film. It’s a string of events with an unclear meaning.

The Blu-Ray, out now from Olive Films, isn’t particularly feature-packed. While the film looks sharp and crisp and beautiful, the lack of extras, or even subtitles, is a major downside.

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