Anthropological analysis of “Impromptu”

Andrea Zuvich

20 Nov. 06

“Impromptu”

When one thinks about the nineteenth century, one is apt to recall fainting corseted ladies who lived in total subservience to men both physically and emotionally. In the 1991 film entitled Impromptu, the plot focuses on the eccentric true-life story of George Sand, a famous writer in the nineteenth century. George Sand was a cigar-chomping intellect with many lovers, little care for society, a huge appetite for life, and as a character says in the film, “leads the most depraved life imaginable[1].” Sand was a man’s man, except for the fact that George was a woman. George Sand is the pseudonym for the Baroness Aurore Dudevant- a woman who both shocked and inspired society with her outrageous (for that time) behaviour. Anthropologists must question whether or not Sand’s behaviour was a result of biology or if she simply wanted to stir things up.

Was there a biological reason behind why she lived the way she did? It would indeed be difficult to analyze such a question so long after her death, but perhaps her own words can shed light upon her life; “That women differ from men; that heart and intellect are subject to the laws of sex, I do not doubt…but does this institute a moral inferiority? And does it necessarily follow that souls and minds of women are inferior to those of men, whose vanity permits them to tolerate no other natural order?[2]” Sand’s friend, Victor Hugo (of Les Miserables fame) wrote of her, “George Sand cannot determine whether she is female or male.[3]

Relations between the sexes are quite easy in the film, with exception to the relationships between George Sand and her many former lovers. Her artist friends, including Franz Liszt, Eugene Delacroix, Honore de Balzac and others share a very affectionate and undiscriminatory relationship with Sand, whom they regard more as a male intellect than a woman.

George Sand one day hears Frederic Chopin’s music and is instantly smitten. He, on the other hand, will have nothing to do with so strange a woman as George; “Rumour has it that you are a woman, and if that is the case I must ask you to leave my private chambers at once![4]” Monsieur Chopin’s repugnance at her being in his bedchamber and his indifference to her makes her revert back to the traditionally-accepted role of a woman. Sand will continually go back and forth from subverting and supporting the traditional and socially-acceptable ideal of womanhood.

For one thing, George Sand was not the nineteenth-century epitome of feminine beauty. As Helen Fisher also states in her book, Anatomy of Love, the universal ideals of beauty include clear skin, bright eyes and a large waist-to-hip ratio[5]. George Sand, who had a swarthy complexion, black eyes, black hair and usually no corset, did not conform to these ideals of beauty.[6] What she did have is a vivacious personality, which probably made up for the other things. As Muriel Jaeger notes in her book, Adventures in Living: From Cato to George Sand, Sand had a way of “exciting attention, without being repulsive, which undoubtedly led to the arousal of many a man’s sex instinct; for even though she had no superficial seductiveness, she had immense vitality.[7]” She was able to more successfully entice lovers by acting more like a man.

George’s character goes through what Dr. Helen Fisher described as “The Chase,” in which she goes after Chopin not only because she is attracted to him, but because it is hard to get him[8]. One of the other characters in the film, Marie d’Agoult tells Sand that Chopin is more of a woman emotionally, and so Sand needs to chase him as if he were a woman. This is yet another example of how gender roles are subverted in this film. As she begins her “chase,” she begins to wear corsets and dresses- which do give her a satisfactory result- Chopin’s notice. She also stops smoking in his presence- since smoking is unladylike. Sand also sends him flowers, shows up wherever he is, and basically pursues him as our society expects men to pursue women. Our western society expects men to do these things because men theoretically are supposed to be the providers. Therefore during courtship rituals, the presenting of gifts to the female suggests this ability to provide.

The character Eugene Delacroix tells Chopin, “she knows how to love, and that’s why so many men don’t want to give her up.” Sand’s former lovers (including Alfred de Musset) were so attracted to who she was, that it did not even matter that she was not dressed as a woman most of the time. According to Samuel Edwards’s George Sand: A Biography of the First Modern, Liberated Woman, in all of Sand’s romantic relationships, she was clearly the aggressive dominant partner. She seemed to need weaker male partners as if she were in a matriarchal society and not a patriarchal society as France was and is. When Sand’s disillusioned former lover, Mallefille declares a duel against Chopin for stealing his woman, Chopin ends up fainting at the duel and Sand shoots Mallefille. Once again, she is shown as the more dominant partner and Chopin more emotional. Sand quickly then returns to support the traditional gender stereotype by nursing Chopin back to health, after which she is rewarded with his declaration of his love for her. She gets excited at this and attempts to have sexual intercourse with him, and he at first resists because he is “frightened,” but then he relents.

Most of the characters in the film Impromptu are relatively traditional when it comes to gender stereotypes. Sand’s friend, Marie d’Agoult is Franz Liszt’s mistress and is left taking care of baby most of the time, which in normal according to societal opinion. Marie, however, in the film is jealous of Sand’s less restrictive life and attempts to seduce Chopin for herself, to no avail. The other only female in the film is the Countess d’Antan, who invites all of the artists over for a fortnight. She is the film’s stereotype female, for she stays at home with no other occupation but to take care of her son and please her husband. She, too, gets inspired when Sand stays at her home during the artist’s fortnight, and unwittingly gets ravished by the dominant male character of Eugene Delacroix.

There are many similarities between the acceptable gender behaviours of the nineteenth century and those of today’s society. For example, men are not looked down upon for having had many sexual partners in the past, but woman are seen as being “loose.” Many things have not changed with respect to what is considered normal gender behaviours. Even now, an unmarried working woman is depicted in a rather harsh light as has been depicted in films like Bridget Jones Diary where they are branded spinsters. Men, on the other hand, enjoy the more favourable term of bachelor, like George Clooney.

In conclusion, George Sand shattered the nineteenth century notion of what a woman ought to be. George Sand has the social and intellectual characteristics of a male and yet she is still ostracized by society because her physical sex is that of a female. She was able to get her man, the same who had once said, “How apathetic this Sand woman is! Is she really a woman at all? I am inclined to doubt it! And who now said, “My heart was captured! Since then I have seen her again, my love, my Aurore, what a lovely name![9]” The film Impromptu is filled with opposing gender stereotypes and questions of what is the proper way for each gender to behave. George Sand dressed like a woman but pursued Chopin like a man, and was rewarded for her pains with a requited love.

Bibliography:

  1. Curtis, Cate. George Sand: A Biography. (New York: Avon Books, 1975),
  2. Edwards, Samuel. George Sand: A Biography of the First Modern, Liberated Woman. (New York: David McKay Co., Inc, 1972),
  3. Grant, Hugh. Impromptu. Produced by Jean Nachbaur and directed by James Lapine. 108 min. MGM, 1991. DVD.
  4. Fisher, Helen. Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray. (New York: Random House, 1992).
  5. Jaeger, Muriel. “Adventures in Living: From Cato to George Sand.” (Freeport: Books for Libraries Press, 1932),
  6. Maurois, Andre. Lelia: The Life of George Sand. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1954),

[1] Grant, Hugh. Impromptu. Produced by Jean Nachbaur and directed by James Lapine. 108 min. MGM, 1991. DVD.

[2] Edwards, Samuel. George Sand: A Biography of the First Modern, Liberated Woman. 1972. Intro.

[3] Edwards, Samuel. George Sand: A Biography of the First Modern, Liberated Woman. 1972. 4.

[4] Grant, Hugh. Impromptu. Produced by Jean Nachbaur and directed by James Lapine. 108 min. MGM, 1991. DVD.

[5] Fisher, Helen. Anatomy of Love. 46.

[6] Curtis, Cate. George Sand: A Biography. (New York: Avon Books), 19.

[7] Jaeger, Muriel. Adventures in Living: From Cato to George Sand. 185-186.

[8] Fisher, Helen. Anatomy of Love. (New York: Random House, 1992), 47-48.

[9] Marois, Andre. Lelia: George Sand. 262-263.

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