I saw Impromptu in high school, a film loosely based on the French writer George Sand, famed for dressing as a man. I was at that vulnerable age where actors like Hugh Grant and Andrew McCarthy were unbearably handsome to me, and so, upon seeing cute boys in top hats, I rented it.
When I first saw Impromptu, I was distracted by Judy Davis’s hair. It was relentlessly bad, with frizzled micro-bangs and horrific crimping. Look, I’m shallow about hair, okay? (Honestly, I didn’t know if I would be able to get used to Hugh Jackman’s hair in X-Men… and then they solved that problem by first introducing us to his lovely naked back.) Anyway, I got over the hair, largely because I empathized with her hugely: she was bull-headed and thoughtless and selfish and took up a lot of space. She wanted things her own way and she dressed as a man because a woman’s lot in the 1820s chafed at her, even though she was privileged and titled and had won herself a certain amount of audacious freedom just by being absolutely herself. Famous for writing lusty romances, as well as having them, she fell in love with Hugh Grant’s exceedingly retiring and painfully shy version of composer Frédéric Chopin. I loved this film for the way her male friends (especially Liszt) were fine with her romantic marauding (a lover played by Mandy Patinkin seemed especially embittered), and wished to see her get her man. If nothing else, it was nice to have an historic example of a woman successfully making the first move – oh, the passionate love letters I’d written to boys I’d had crushes on, and their baffled, terrified eyes upon reading them!
Emma Thompson is delightful as the slightly dim but goodnatured hostess of the party in the country where George first sets eyes on Chopin,and Bernadette Peters is delicious as George’s frenemy and Liszt’s lover, the countess. It’s full of wit and cheerful drama and groovy little backdrops: things on fire, women fainting, florid paintings of tigers mauling jaded women…
Fascinated by the film, I went on to read several biographies of both Sand and Chopin, and although I can’t remember which ones I read, I imagine that anyone who loved them enough to do the research did them some justice. I should read Sand’s autobiography Story of My Life: The Autobiography of George Sand, if nothing else. Thanks to her, I planned to become a famous writer, have strings of lovers and crash around and never marry, and really, I think girls especially should start out that way. It’s healthier than waiting at home, earnestly hoping your One True Love will show up. I mean, I’m not exactly famous, and I wouldn’t say I was a heartbreaker or anything, particularly, and my love showed up and stuff, and married me, even, but I hadn’t been waiting around for him, man. Like George, I had stuff to do.