April 29, 1991 12:00 PM

Judy Davis, Hugh Grant

Portraying 19th-century French novelist George Sand (née Amandine-Aurore-Lucile Dupin) as a prevideo-era Madonna, this drawing-room comedy sometimes gets a bit precious. But it has a whimsical charm, and Davis (A Passage to India), steely, sexy and vulnerable all at the same time, is characteristically splendid.

Extrapolating from real events, scenarist Sarah Kernochan (cowriter of 9½ Weeks) concentrates on Sand’s crusade to seduce Frederic Chopin, part of a Parisian brat pack that includes composer Franz Liszt, poet Alfred de Musset and painter Eugene Delacroix.

Grant (Maurice) plays the moralistic Chopin, the Polish-born composer. He makes an ideal foil for Davis.

On the one hand, she is scandalizing Paris by wearing men’s clothes and conducting very public affairs. (“You’re not with the army anymore,” she tells one ex-lover, a soldier who keeps wanting to reanalyze their relationship. “We had an affair, not a pitched battle.”) On the other, to please Chopin, she not only puts on a dress but a dress in red and white—the colors of the Polish flag.

Kernochan and debuting film director James Lapine (Kernochan’s husband and Broadway collaborator of Stephen Sondheim) display a capricious approach, one that does not pay undue attention to the problems of anachronism or literal history. At a triumphant moment, for instance, Davis’s two young children shout, “Yes!” as if they had just beaten the eighth board of Super Mario Brothers III.

There are fine performances by Julian (Warlock) Sands as Liszt, Bernadette Peters as Liszt’s bitter mistress, Mandy Patinkin as Musset and Emma (The Tall Guy) Thompson as a duchess who invites the whole artsy crowd to her chateau but soon finds them to be ungrateful and boring.

And Kernochan has a way with an acerbic line. When someone suggests to Patinkin, another ex-lover of Davis, that he still lusts after her, he snarls, “I’d rather chew glass.” Davis, tiring of Ralph Brown as Delacroix (known for his macabre works), tells him, “Go home. Paint something dead.”

There are serious subtexts, mostly about the difficulties faced by strong-minded women—presumably now as well as in the 19th century. “I used to think I’d die of suffocation when I was married,” Davis says. “Now it’s my freedom that’s killing me.”

The strongest impression this film makes, though, is as a meditation on the truth that love always has its limitations—for better, for worse and to the ultimate benefit of the generally invigorating qualities of desire. (PG-13)

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