Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With Jessica Hausner’s peculiar period piece Amour Fou coming to theaters, we extend our hand to other 19th-century romances.

Impromptu (1991)

Baroness Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, better known to posterity as the novelist George Sand, refused to be confined by the gender conventions of her era. In addition to using a male pseudonym, she regularly dressed in men’s clothing, both because she found it more comfortable and because it allowed her to infiltrate venues that barred women. She also openly smoked, at a time when the very idea of women doing something as vulgar as smoking was considered unthinkable. In short, she’s a fantastic subject for a biopic, and it’s surprising that so few have been made. Impromptu (1991), written by Sarah Kernochan (9½ Weeks, Sommersby) and directed by her husband, longtime Sondheim collaborator James Lapine, chronicles Sand’s tumultuous romance with composer Frédéric Chopin, which lasted from 1837 to 1847. The film is far too goofy to qualify as a proper biopic, but that’s all for the best, frankly—what it lacks in historical accuracy and insight, it more than makes up in laughs.

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Lapine’s smartest move as director was casting Judy Davis as Sand, at the height of her powers. (Her indelible performance in Woody Allen’s Husbands And Wives came out the following year.) Davis throws herself headfirst into the role, charging recklessly into scenes and lashing out, either with ardor or with anger, at virtually everyone who comes within range. It’s an impressive ensemble: Mandy Patinkin as Alfred De Musset, an earlier Sand conquest (depicted here as still hopelessly smitten with her); Bernadette Peters as the hilariously snobby Marie D’Agoult, who also wrote using a male pseudonym—hers was, believe it or not, Daniel Stern; Julian Sands as composer Franz Liszt; and Emma Thompson as a starstruck duchess who regrets her decision to invite many of Europe’s literary giants to stay at her home for the summer. The diciest casting choice was Hugh Grant as Chopin, but he manages to scale back his usual floppy-haired charm (though his hair is pretty damn floppy—he was only 31) and play the role as written: sickly and depressive, no match at all for his lover’s ferocious energy. But Impromptu ultimately belongs to Davis, who invests Sand with so much wild vitality that the character transcends gender.

Availability: Impromptu is available on DVD through Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. The film can also be rented or purchased (though only in standard definition, sadly) from Amazon.

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