Like "A Room With a View," the new film "Impromptu" is an offbeat romance full of atmosphere and unexpected comedy. The comparison seems apt since both movies have much the same sensibility, as well as sharing a key player (Julian Sands). But there's no question that "Impromptu" has fewer pretenses and aims quite successfully at being very funny.
Set in the early 19th century, the film was shot entirely in France. Though somewhat ensemble in nature, the primary focus is on novelist George Sand (Judy Davis) a notorious woman who managed to stand out despite being surrounded by other Bohemian artists of the time and her unlikely romantic pursuit of the composer Fredric Chopin (Hugh Grant), her complete opposite in every way.
"Impromptu" has Sand first smitten with Chopin when she hears him playing the piano for an audience, but through closed doors. When he finishes playing, she races in to see him, but he has already gone.
A bit later, upon discovering Chopin will be one of several guests at a two-week gathering of local artists at a huge country estate, Sand abruptly invites herself along, leading to a wild series of events that may bring to mind Ingmar Bergman's "Smiles of a Summer Night" (or at the least, Woody Allen's "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy").
Sand, who wears men's clothes and affects a manly swagger, smoking cigars and using earthy language, falls head-over-heels for Chopin and chases him quite aggressively, much to his chagrin. Chopin is quiet, dignified, shy and reserved. Needless to say, he is shocked by Sand's behavior and becomes even more distrustful when someone purposely deceives him about Sand's motives.
The bulk of the film takes place during the two-week stay at the country estate, followed by a sort of epilogue that carries the story to a logical conclusion, despite the efforts of those who do everything possible to prevent it.
Other prominent characters include the self-centered Franz Liszt (Julian Sands), whose jealous mistress, the Countess Marie d'Agoult (Bernadette Peters), may cause you to think of "Dangerous Liaisons," though she never quite achieves the success of her counterpart in that film, along with the poet Alfred de Musset (Mandy Patinkin), Sand's discarded lover, who is hilarious as he vents his vitriol toward her.
All the primary players are wonderful, as are those who fill the many minor roles, each with unexpected depth and dimension, as well as the benefit of witty dialogue and inspired pieces of business.
But Judy Davis must be singled out for her remarkable performance as Sand. It's interesting that Ellen Barkin is currently receiving a great deal of praise for her man-inside-the-body-of-a-woman role in "Switch," because Davis is even better, much more subtly adapting the physicality of a woman who has decided to take on the men that surround her on their own terms. Yet, somehow, while Davis does so, she remains both illuminating and enchanting, without so much as a single false note.
"Impromptu" is rated PG-13 for some violence, sex, vulgarity, profanity and drugs, most of it quite restrained.