Neglected Films No.11: ‘Impromptu’
Frederic Chopin explains the meaning of the title near the end of this delighted and virtually unseen film. He describes how hard it is to write something that seems spontaneous and effortless, to hide the hard work that has led to it and which underpins it. Of course, it’s also a metaphor for love within the film itself, but could equally hold true of the screenplay, a delightful meditation on art, its creators, sponsors and detractors.
The film covers the meeting and early courtship of George Sand and Chopin, a fairly disastrous relationship that paradoxically allowed Chopin to create some of his best music. Directed by the librettist of ‘Sunday In The Park With George’ from his wife’s script, this is intelligent, irreverent period entertainment, and therefore doomed not to find a mass appeal audience.
And what a cast! The brilliant and too rarely seen Judy Davis is Sand, and is backed up by Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Mandy Patinkin, Bernadette Peters, Julian Sands and Anna Massey.
Here, George Sand, Chopin, Liszt and a coterie of artistic friends descend upon their patron’s country house, brawling, duelling and squabbling through every meal before their bemused non-creative sponsor Thompson, who has failed to realise that inviting geniuses into her home will be uglier and more violent than the soirees she had imagined. Chopin’s reticence and poor health is ill-matched by Sand’s wildly impetuous behaviour, but if they’re going to be doomed, you think they might as well be doomed together.
A centrepiece is the appalling play that the creatives stage for their guileless benefactor, ridiculing Thompson to her defeated and disappointed face, and in her we can see every opera-house patron who ever clung to the coat-tails of uncontrollable talent. The moral is that genius, and love, cannot be tamed into something tasteful and easy to consume for those who have no real stomach for it.
The camerawork cheekily recalls a number of French paintings, and while much of the detail is accurate, the end result is much broader and ballsier than we’ve come to expect from films Alan Parker once (erroneously) described as ‘the Laura Ashley school of filmmaking’.