I am sort of obsessed with French author George Sand. This started off when a good friend sat me down to watch Impromptu (1991), which, weirdly enough, I hadn’t watched until 20-some-odd years after it had come out. That lead me to making a George Sand costume for Dickens Fair as kind of a one-off idea, but then it ended up being such a hit, I basically cosplayed George for the entire run of Dickens 2015, and then played her part-time the next year.
For those who may not be familiar with Madame Sand, here’s a very brief overview of her fascinating life. She was born Amantine Lucile Dupin, but was known as “Aurore” by friends and family. An early advantageous marriage to Casimir Dudevant, illegitimate son of the Baron Dudevant, pretty much set Aurore up for a conventional, comfortable life as an upper-class woman in 1820s France.
However, in the early 1830s, Aurore decided the marriage was no longer to her taste and effectively ditched Casimir, taking her two young children and heading off to Paris where she fell in with the literary and artistic crowd pretty swiftly. Wanting to publish her writing, she sought the help of one of her earliest known lovers, author Jules Sandeau, who suggested that she take a man’s name in order to escape the stigma of female authorship. They settled on “George Sand,” which was sort of a spin on Sandeau’s name. Together, they wrote and published Indiana (1832), which is well worth a read if you’ve got some bandwidth for it. Indiana became a hit among the Parisian salon-going crowd, and Aurore decided to up the notoriety factor by appearing at readings dressed in men’s clothes and going by her nom de plume.
There is a whole subset of literary history that delves into why Aurore became George, but there was never any confusion about which gender she identified with. Though she had liaisons with both men and women, George definitely identified as female. She just wore men’s clothes and adopted a man’s name. And despite more than a few raised eyebrows, she appears to have been accepted, at least in artistic circles where a woman wearing trousers was probably fairly low on the list of shocking public behavior. In her biography, George Sand: A Woman’s Life Writ Large, author Belinda Jack mentions that the girls of the village near where George grew up at Nohant routinely wore boy’s clothing, so perhaps for George, this wasn’t weird behavior. And there was definitely an exhibitionist streak to George — she apparently enjoyed creating a spectacle, whether by her multiple affairs, her very public divorce from Casimir where she sued for, and won, custody of her children, or just strolling around Paris in a frock coat and top hat, smoking a cigar.
As for her love life, it’s exhaustively chronicled through her own writing and the writings of the various authors she was involved with. Baudelaire even took the time to write a venomous description of her character:
She is stupid, heavy and garrulous. Her ideas on morals have the same depth of judgment and delicacy of feeling as those of janitresses and kept women … The fact that there are men who could become enamoured of this slut is indeed a proof of the abasement of the men of this generation.
Apparently there were many men (and a few women) who were drawn to the brash, “garrulous” George Sand. Her longest relationship was with Polish pianist and composer, Frédéric Chopin, and most of the films about her focus on their relationship, which spanned a decade and ended with a highly contentious public breakup that some feel contributed to Chopin’s early death in 1849. The stress of being George Sand’s lover couldn’t have been good for Chopin’s already delicate health.
Anyway, all this is to say that I’ve been watching all of the George Sand films I can get my hands on. The ones I list below are just the ones I have been able to track down.
A Song to Remember (1945) – Merle Oberon
The costumes are by Walter Plunkett, which is just about the only thing I really liked about this film. Merle Oberon’s George is a mega-bitch, playing the antagonist devil woman who, for reasons unknown, seeks to squeeze the life out of Chopin. The plot is a blatant attempt to shoehorn Chopin’s patriotic Polish pride with WWII themes that surely resonated with audiences when it was released in 1945. Seventy-whatever-years later, it’s just weirdly ham-fisted. It must have made an impression on my former piano teacher, however, because she was the biggest Chopin fangirl I had ever met and constantly referred back to this film as the start of her obsession. Me? I’m more of a Mozart girl.
Notorious Woman (1975) – Rosemary Harris
I can’t find a copy of this anywhere, other than a shitty 12-minute YouTube clip. If anyone knows where to find a copy, email me. I’m dying to watch this one!
Impromptu (1991) – Judy Davis
I’ve written about Impromptu previously, but of all the versions of George’s life that I’ve watched thus far, it’s still my favorite (you never forget your first, after all). The plot has very little bearing on history, but the costumes are fabulous, and Judy Davis’ George is hard to beat. She’s neither angel nor devil, but she’s fierce AF. It’s the very definition of a “musical romp.” And Hugh Grant as Chopin is surprisingly a good casting choice, particularly for this era when he was basically typecast as the treacly British boy-next-door.
Children of the Century (1999) – Juliette Binoche
This French film is a departure from the typical George Sand biopic in that it doesn’t focus on her relationship with Chopin, but her relationship with fellow author, Alfred de Musset. And Musset, btw, happens to be played by My BoyfriendTM Benoît Megamel. So, automatic points for being highly aesthetically pleasing. I’m planning a more extensive review of this one in the near future.
Chopin: Desire for Love (2002) – Danuta Stenka
I finally sat down and watched this Polish biopic and I have to say, even though I have some issues with the way Chopin and George’s relationship was portrayed, I thought Danuta Stenka was hands-down the best George Sand I’ve yet seen (and Piotr Adamczyk is definitely one of the truest-to-life depictions of Chopin on the screen. The Polish take their Chopin VERY SERIOUSLY). Stenka’s portrayal actually gave me a lot of food for thought regarding her behavior towards the end of her affair with Chopin … Which I promise I will delve deeper into once I get around to writing a more in-depth review of the film.
Are there any other films about George Sand that you think I should review? Share them in the comments!