Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg. Stephen Frears (dir.) 111 minutes.
Marguerite (2015) Catherine Frot, André Marcon, Denis Mpunga. Xavier Giannoli (dir.) French with English subtitles / 127 minutes.
Two movies, two titles, inspired by the same real-life character, that of the American socialite Florence Foster Jenkins. For opera fans who’re interested in this cult figure, it’s a bonanza of sorts. But it must have been a nightmare, at best a little uncomfortable, for the respective creative team of the two projects, both centred on the same subject at the same time. In a recent article by James Mottram in the UK newspaper Independent, French writer-director Xavier Giannoli voiced his anxiety over his film, Marguerite, being pitted against the Hollywood powerhouse team of Meryl Streep and Stephen Frears, in their own glitzy version on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins.
Giannoli’s French-Czech-Belgian co-production came out first, released in Europe last September. It won an award at the Venice International Film Festival and went on to receive eleven César Awards nominations in Paris, winning Best Actress, Costume, Sound, and Production Design. It was released in North America this past March to relatively little fanfare. The Streep-Frears version was unveiled recently, in the waning weeks of this summer. Critical responses for both films have been almost uniformly positive, with the highest praise reserved for the respective casts.
For those unfamiliar with Florence Foster Jenkins (1868 – 1944), here’s a little primer. She was a Pennsylvania-born, New York socialite with the singular aspiration of becoming an opera singer. Sadly, she had the ambition but not the requisite instrument to earn her anything other than derision. Jenkins has always been well known in classical music circles – her recording of “Der Hölle Rache” with its famously excruciating high notes had existed in all the formats since 78 rpm discs. Like other fellow undergrads, I recall my fascination, gladly shelling out good money at Sam the Record Man for a copy of her RCA LP The Glory (????) of the Human Voice which I still own to this day. No, not for its artistic merit but as a sort of high-camp guilty pleasure, the equivalent of a “party tape” – opera buffs will know what I’m talking about.
It was only in the last twenty years or so, through the research of Donald Collup, a member of the Internet discussion group Opera-L, that we learned more about Jenkins’ private life. The Streep-Frears movie owed a great deal to the meticulous research by Collup, down to the myriad minutiae of her life. Given her wealth, Jenkins was shielded from the truth about her voice by her husband, St. Clair Bayfield, her entourage and her assorted admirers, many of whom stood to benefit from her wealth and her delusion. It was only at the end when she decided to give a Carnegie Hall recital to the general public, that she was confronted by the truth. We may laugh all we want at her singing, but ultimately Jenkins is a tragic figure who’s unable to distinguish fantasy from reality.
Having seen both movies, I’m struck by their difference in content, tone and style. To be sure the Streep-Frears is more authentic, more faithful to what actually happened. It’s also more “Hollywood” – and I don’t mean that as a negative. Florence Foster Jenkins is not a spoof, but a story told with sensitivity, respect, even love. All characters have redeeming qualities – St. Clair Bayfield the philandering husband, charmingly acted by Hugh Grant, is here portrayed as having genuine love for Jenkins. As the doe-eyed pianist Cosme McMoon, Simon Helberg is hilariously over-the-top, full of airy lightness even when agonizing whether accompanying Jenkins would ruin his reputation. And he plays his own piano to boot, and not pre-recorded either, a daring feat.
As Jenkins, Streep, the chameleon, is truly in her glory — completely lovable despite the godawful warbling. Do expect another Oscar nomination to come. A trained singer, Streep probably has never sounded so good singing so bad. At the end, one finally gets to hear Streep singing on pitch, a pretty, though far from operatic, voice, one suitable for pop. Even in the darkest moments of the movie, one is aware of the Hollywood treatment; the characters don’t really develop in the course of the movie — what you see is what you get. As a viewer, I’m saddened by her fate, but rather than being weighed down by the tragedy, it’s strangely uplifting, even a feel-good moment. But then such is the magic of Hollywood!
By contrast, Xavier Giannoli has given us a much darker film. The story is much more loosely adapted from the life of FFJ. For one thing, it’s been transplanted to somewhere in France in the Roaring Twenties; the main character is Marguerite Dumont, a wealthy socialite and aspiring opera singer. She wants to win her husband’s love through her singing. Her husband, Georges, here played with cold stoicism by André Marcon, is singularly unsympathetic. One doesn’t sense any love from him towards Marguerite. If anything, he does everything he can to avoid her, particularly her singing. Only at the very end does he shows a change of heart, trying to stop Marguerite from listening to her own recording, but alas, it’s too late. When she realises how awful she really is, she collapses. Does she die? The ending is left open.
In the Streep film, Jenkins dies as a direct result of the shock of the Carnegie concert. The truth is not quite as dramatic. In real life, Jenkins suffered a heart attack a week or so later and died within a month or two. The Cosme McMoon character doesn’t exist in the Giannoli movie; instead, we have another fictional character, of the Butler Madelbos, an unsettling creation, vaguely sinister, brilliantly acted by Denis Mpunga. Added to the mix the newspaper critic Lucien Beaumont (played by Sylvain Dieuaide who in my opinion is much too young for the role), the young rabble-rouser/anarchist/opportunist Kyrill von Priest (Aubert Fenoy) and the fading dramatic tenor Atos Pezzini (Michel Fau), and you have a colourful cast of characters to serve the twists and turns of the plot.
But the jewel in the crown is Catherine Frot as Marguerite. I’ve always enjoyed her work, among them the classical music suspense movie The Page Turner. Her Marguerite exceeds my expectations with its mix of innocence, womanly warmth, and a touching mix of elegance and melancholia. Her Best Actress César Award is richly deserved. The sets, costumes and in particular the cinematography are superb. Director Giannoli has penned a very fine script, but if I were to nitpick, I find the ending a bit abrupt and unconvincing. The denouement hinges on Marguerite hearing her own voice from a secretly made recording. If indeed she is as wealthy as she is supposed to be, surely she would have already had recordings made, many times over. Don’t forget the first sound recordings were made in 1895, and Caruso made his first record, “E Lucevan le stelle” as early as 1902…
At the end of the day, a direct comparison is inevitable. It begs the question which of the two is a better movie. Is that even a fair question? It depends on your taste. Fans of Meryl Streep and the Hollywood treatment will swear by Florence Foster Jenkins, and it’s indeed a very enjoyable movie. But for my money, I find Marguerite a more memorable film, not necessarily better or superior, or even necessarily more enjoyable. It’s darker, more cynical, but also more thoughtful, beautifully crafted, superbly acted, one that has greater dramatic resonance, and its principal character ultimately more tragic. In fact, the principals are more enigmatic, undergoing more transformation in the course of the film, and in many ways, they’re more interesting. In any case, I wouldn’t want to do without either one.