My first introduction to Aurore “George” Sand, the French author, has come solely from my viewing of director James Lapine’s Impromptu. Having never read Sand’s work, nor any form of a biography, I have come to the topic with no preconceived notions. This film’s limited window into Sand’s life provides the opportunity for an interesting experiment. I’d like to compare my first impression of Sand as directed by Lapine with that produced by acquiring additional information. Will my initial understanding be supported, contradicted or enhanced by some quick research? Let’s find out.
When Young Aurore (Lucy Speed) first appears, she is a child running through the wilderness away from an authoritative voice calling her name. She arrives at a self-made altar of stones among the ferns growing at the base of a tree. There she kneels and prays:
Hear me, O Corambe. Corambe, thou who art man, woman and god in one, hear me. I free this bird in thy name. Come to me, sublime being. I want to know the meaning of life. And I want to find perfect, perfect love. I free this lizard in thy name. [To lizard] Don’t be dead. Oh, balls.
This shot dissolves to reveal Madame “George” Sand (Judy Davis) seated at a desk writing her memoirs.
This opening scene sets up the rest of the film entirely. George thrives in nature away from the confines of constructed society. She makes sacrifices to an a-typical God of the time who, rather than existing as a patriarchal being, is complete in both masculine and feminine form combined. There is depth to the author from the start, a desire to explore the many facets of life’s meaning including that of love. Aurore is not a well kempt child pristinely decorated with frills and bows but one willing to get down into the dirt and truly experience a moment from within.
From this point on, little about the character is ultimately shocking whether George appears in men’s clothing or crosses the boundaries of gender-based social etiquette. Still, she is complex, round if you will, open to her own emotion, contemplative and analytical while those who surround her are flat caricatures of the jealous, manipulative and overbearing friends, lovers and wanna-be artists. She drifts between the despair of being married and the despair of her freedom, searching for the happiness which can only be found in Chopin’s (Hugh Grant’s) love. Along the way, she makes her own rules just as she does within their relationship.
Rather than rely upon love for inspiration, as is the case in Shakespeare in Love, George appears to write about the journey, the struggle of life itself in her memoirs. When she and Chopin discuss his impromptu, the connection between this struggle in both art and life are addressed:
Chopin: A perfect impromptu should seem spontaneous and free. No one should be able to guess at all the desperate calculation behind it. And uh, I’ve been struggling with this for so long. It’s like being tangled in a net? I think if I ever finish it, then it will have finished me. Well, you must, you must suffer tortures to find the perfect word that will make it all seem effortless.
George: Me, suffer for art? You must be joking. I suffer quite enough for life.
I want to believe this separation for George is the truth, but there is evidence within the film to the contrary. When she hands the final chapter of her memoirs to her publisher, the pages are thinly bound. George then makes the correlation between the lack of content and a lack of emotional satisfaction in her life. Without one, the other suffers and the two are not as easily compartmentalized as she would like to believe.
I find that George and Chopin have much to offer each other. Chopin reveals to George that the struggle of art is the struggle of life while she reveals to him that he needs to reunite with the world of the living in order to create art. Only together do the two connect with each other, with life and with art, creating their world as would a god the likes of Corambe.
I’m off to read more on Sand now. Back shortly…
As it turns out, and I suspected as such, the depiction of George Sand is rather accurate in personality, regardless of the fictionalized version of her relationship with Chopin and my understanding of Sand has only been enhanced by internet inquiries. Generally speaking, Judy Davis’ skillful characterization personified Sand’s ability to avoid pigeonholing herself within any one particular category. Still, while I never expect a film to incorporate every aspect of a person’s character or story, I find it interesting that Sand’s politics factored in so little within the narrative of Impromptu. According to the George Sand Biography from Ohio University, she produced a great number of written propaganda pieces for the revolution and the provisional government:
Sand appealed to Louis Napoleon for clemency and amnesty for many of the people implicated in the revolution. She was granted at least two audiences, and through her intervention some were saved from execution, others given commuted sentences. Thirteen political detainees of the Indre region were spared exile of prison. She literally pled the cause of hundreds of people, including Bakunin whom she defended in a letter to Karl Marx (July 20, 1848). But she herself was crushed by disappointment, and retreated to literature for solace (see the two prefaces to La Petite Fadette) and to writing her memoirs, Histoire de ma vie, in which she alluded to the revolution only in Aesopian terms.
Timing here is interesting. The writing of her memoirs was the result and evidence of Sand’s ideological stance on the revolution. The film avoids this overt connection, although her thoughts on the aristocracy are made quite clear.