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Film review: Madame Sousatzka

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 22 1988 12:00 a.m. MST

"Madame S.," as she is called, doesn't just teach her music students about playing the piano — she teaches them about life! And she doesn't hesitate to tell them so.

But the movie "Madame Sousatzka" isn't so much about what the students of this flamboyant teacher learn as what she herself does not learn.

Eccentric to the last, Madame S. is entranced by the world of music, yet fearful of it, due to her own failure in the concert setting as a promising young pianist — inadequacies brought about by a domineering mother.

So now she takes new young prodigies under her wing, tries to dominate their lives and perhaps even falls a little bit in love with them. Certainly she is jealous of them. And she holds up their playing in public for as long as she possibly can.

This is the rich character played by Shirley MacLaine in "Madame Sousatzka," her first film since winning the Oscar for "Terms of Endearment" five years ago.

And it is her first real "character" role, complete with matronly makeup and 30 pounds she put on for the role.

Just as her character dominates her students, MacLaine dominates this movie, ranting, raving, quietly demanding, coaxing, cajoling . . . and occasionally taking a break to eat some cookies she has baked herself.

She's funny, clever and wondrous to behold, and she carries "Madame Sousatzka" to heights that might not readily seem warranted by the script, which is composed of elements that might seem overly familiar.

The story has Sousatzka, of Russian extraction, a resident of London, where she has just picked up her latest student, a young prodigy of Indian heritage named Manek (newcomer Navin Chowdhry). When he arrives for his first lesson Madame S. gives him his first instruction: Don't ever wear roller skates again -what if he fell and hurt his hands?

Manek begins to get the idea early, and he obeys most of his instructor's instructions. But soon he begins getting pressure from his mother to take on an agent and play for money. Madame S. is adamantly opposed, of course, but Manek's family is quite poor and could use the money.

Meanwhile, there are subplots about a pair of elderly people being displaced from the building in which Madame S. resides; the aspiring pop singer who lives upstairs (Twiggy) and her sleazy lover, an agent who wants Manek to play professionally; a gentle, handicapped music teacher who agrees to take Manek on if he leaves the volatile Madame S., and, naturally, all the expected coming-of-age elements about Manek's passing through adolescence while all this is going on.

But making the picture better than most of this ilk is the concentration on great music, and, naturally, the stupendous performance of MacLaine. Yes, she will doubtless get another Oscar nomination — and yes, it will be deserved.

"Madame Sousatzka" is rated PG-13 for violence, profanity and sex.