Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

18 August 2016

Two Films about Florence Foster Jenkins

Remember when there were back-to-back movies about Yves Saint Laurent and it seemed rather strange that they could end up being so different from one another? Well, this year, there are back-to-back films about Florence Foster Jenkins, a much less famous person, and they are, once again, very very different from one another. Stephen Frears' Florence Foster Jenkins (released on August 12) explores a little section of time near the end of the life of an amateur singer and socialite, her relationship with her devoted husband St. Clair, and her desire to sing a concert of operatic music at Carnegie Hall, although she is, in fact, a terrible singer. Frears' film stars Meryl Streep and will dutifully get a great deal of Oscar buzz and probably a couple nominations (Streep and Consolata Boyle for the costumes). The other film is Xavier Giannoli's Marguerite, which fictionalizes the life of Florence Foster Jenkins, sets it in France, and changes the names but essentially explores an identical plotline.

If you've seen the trailer for Florence, then you know what Frears is going for. Florence is a glossy, silly cartoon of a film, that is interested primarily in a kind of emotional reversal, whereby we spend most of the film laughing at Lady Florence and then over time, as we come to think of her as a lost, desperate soul, we begin to pity her in many ways. This approach is a kind of standard movie-making approach to these kinds of characters, it seems to me, and Frears knows how to do something like this well. Big movie studios also have the tendency to treat this period of time in frivolous ways – one might think immediately of last year's execrable Trumbo and its version of the 1950s as a kind of cartoon (Saving Mr. Banks and Hitchcock did this as well). In any case, the point is that Florence is, like the three movies I've just mentioned, more interested in the true story of this really interesting real person and what she did than in actually exploring who the person was, how she might have felt, why she might have made the choices she made, and what the impact of those choices might have been on the people to whom she was closest.

Florence fails as a film because, frankly, it isn't that much interested in Florence herself as a person. Florence looks at Florence as a freak, a curiosity whose story is fascinating because it is so outrageous but who isn't interesting as an artist. In many ways, although Florence is played by the great Meryl Streep, the film pays no attention to the woman's humanity. This is not only because the film's tone is absurd, but also because the plot itself follows Florence's husband, St. Clair Bayfield, and Florence's accompanist, Cosmé McMoon, more closely than it does Florence herself. In fact, we spend more time alone with the two of them than we do with Florence by herself. In other words we see Florence through other people's eyes most of the time, and much of the way we look at her is mocking.

Of course, it is hard not to mock. Florence Foster Jenkins was a terrible singer, and she gave an infamously terrible concert at Carnegie Hall. This is the stuff of legend. And no matter how one slices it, it is pretty hilarious to hear Meryl Streep screech through the Queen of the Night aria or an aria from Lakmé. But this is as deep as the film is content to go. And the film, in fact, has nothing to say about any of this. Just that it happened. Florence Foster Jenkins is a real missed opportunity, and it seemed to me like a retread of Frears' earlier Mrs Henderson Presents. I was bored.

* * *

Marguerite (which was released in the U.S. on March 11) is something else altogether. Xavier Giannoli transposes the WWII-era tale of FFJ to France between the two wars, setting the story in Paris in 1920 and 1921. Marguerite is a wealthy, eccentric socialite with a love of opera and a huge collection of costumes, recordings, scores, and props. She adores opera, performs concerts for a club that meets in her home, and seems to have no idea that her voice is awful.

The film begins when a young singer from the city, a young reporter from a Paris newspaper, and a young poet all arrive on the scene and manage to hear Marguerite perform. We see this first concert through their eyes, and we get to know the three young people, but as the film progresses, it is Marguerite whom we get to know. The other characters fall away. They are only a kind of narrative way into the story of the singer herself.

The story takes off after the reporter, Lucien Beaumont, writes a review of her work – never lying about her abilities but describing her singing in the generous terms that someone who is fond of the singer might use – calling her courageous and raw and natural and compelling. And she is compelling. When Marguerite sings, Giannoli doesn't simply ask us to cringe or laugh; he asks us to watch her, to try to see her, to understand what this is. I should say, too, that Marguerite is played exquisitely by Catherine Frot, who won a César award for her work. And in fact, the acting is excellent all around (my other favorite was Sylvain Dieuaide who plays Lucien).

On her way to the Dada Festival
Marguerite does some other interesting things, too, sort of merging the lives of Florence Foster Jenkins and Raymond Roussel. Once Marguerite becomes popular with the young artists in Paris, befriending them and beginning to hang out with them, she agrees to perform at a Dada salon (a truncated version of the "Dada Festival" from 26 May 1920), singing the Marsellaise while a film is projected onto her dress. Marguerite becomes a hit with these young people. She is a delightful person, and they enjoy spending time with her, and she is also interesting to them as a bad artist. The Dadas, of course, are interested in "bad" art, in pushing the boundaries of art, in asking us to find art in unexpected places, and their affection for Marguerite's skill-less singing and unbridled love of performing is genuine if tinged with class envy. (Incidentally, I should say that the young poet in these sequences is designed to look exactly like Tristan Tzara but is a kind of amalgam of Tzara and two other Dadas, Hugo Ball and André Breton.)

the brilliant Catherine Frot
What Marguerite does best is allow us in to Marguerite's life. Of course she is delusional. Of course her singing is laughable. Fine. But Marguerite, in its generosity toward this character, sees further. There is not only her bad singing and her silly artistic whims. Marguerite is not a comedy. It is, instead, a real exploration of the life of a frustrated artist and the ways she is exploited and derided in various ways. Much of Giannoli's film is outrageous, certainly – it was an insane time to be a member of the avant-garde in Paris – and so there are a lot of laughs to be had, and it is very funny at times, but Marguerite never stops being about beauty and art and the deep desire each of us has to be loved.

Paradoxically, Marguerite, the 2016 film that completely fictionalizes the life of Florence Foster Jenkins, is a deeper, more fascinating exploration of that artist's life than the film entitled Florence Foster Jenkins.