Florence Foster Jenkins

Further proof that films are like buses

Occasionally, more frequently than a blue moon but not as often as a full moon, two films about the same topic will come out at around the same time. The most famous example would be 1998’s apocalyptic clash between Michael Bay’s Armageddon and Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact (to save you from speculating, I prefer the latter). And now, in 2016, we have two films about ‘the world’s worst opera singer’ Florence Foster Jenkins. Mme Jenkins was born in 1868 and spent many of the latter years of her life as part of New York’s aristocratic music scene. Renowned for being a very generous benefactor of ‘struggling’ artists she was unsurprisingly popular, so much so her inner circle were able to put up with her recitals – recitals which recordings prove were devoid of tone, rhythm, pitch and sustainment of a single note.  Last month’s magnificent Marguerite was inspired by Florence Foster Jenkins infamous legend – transplanting the character to 1920s France. Now we have one of the grand dames of acting playing her in a biopic of her life in a production that is difficult to avoid comparison to its wonderful European spiritual counterpart

.After an incredibly well-received production in front of a gathering of her various women’s groups, most of which she chairs, Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) decides she wants to get back into the swing of regular rehearsing again – ideally culminating in a grand performance. She sets her loving husband St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) on the case. During auditions they find the perfect candidate in the form of Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg). McMoon rehearses with Florence daily and swiftly becomes part of the furniture for Florence. Things aren’t as easy for McMoon as he must deal with the fact that he employer is the worst singer he has ever heard, something Florence’s British ex-thespian husband does not appear to acknowledge. Then again neither of them acknowledge the fact he lives in an apartment in the city with his mistress Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson)…

As I have stated previously it is very hard to separate this from Marguerite which I enjoyed tremendously. It seems bitterly unfair to draw a comparison between two films that, subject matter aside, would never have been compared in terms of place of origin, cast or budget. However, and I have no qualms in admitting this,  I think Marguerite is the superior of the two. I really struggled when watching Florence Foster Jenkins for a multitude of reasons, reasons which have not really been addressed by the majority of reviews which shine the film’s praises.

I found the tone rather one-note (ironic considering the focus of the film!) with a plot that meandered between events and scenes. Streep’s characterisation at times bordered on pastiche. Could it be that Streep prefered to let her character reach for the high notes without providing the filler? However during the film’s quieter moments Streep really brings the character to life with some much needed depth with a revelation about 30 minutes in that does provoke a much-needed shift in tone. Admittedly this can be a common problem with ‘true story’ films as often truth can be stranger than fiction, making the truth rather difficult to believe. And yes, in case you were wondering, the singing is as bad as you’d think it would be. How the film portrays this singing is another aspect I found quite bristling when watching as I felt that the audience are called on more frequently to laugh at her rather than with her. As opposed to presenting her as a woman with a passion that truly gave her a purpose for living (*ahem* Marguerite) the film has would could almost be perceived as a mean streak as it laughs at her delusions instead.

This is not helped by the rather hollow archetype Grant portrays as her husband who spends most of his time maintaining Florence’s facade – that’s when he’s not entertaining his mistress. The reasoning for her presence is scarcely explained and results in Ferguson being vastly underused. Helberg (best known for playing Howard in The Big Bang Theorygrates profoundly as a camp closeted wannabe man about town.  The fact he spends the majority of the film with a fixed expression of embarrassed bewilderment only reinforces the sentiment that Florence is a figure of fun as opposed to one who requires understanding.

The film’s message is decidedly unclear.Many reviews refer to the affectionate and heartfelt treatment the film gives its title character. Instead the film feels light on charm, instead possessing a simplistic plot that is full of encouragement to point and laugh at a rather vulnerable figure.

2 stars

Marguerite

A tragicomedy filled with laughs and tears

Strangely, and I hate to be one of those people, but I’m going to start of by drawing comparison with this film and Eddie the Eagle . Though this may not initially be an obvious comparison, Eddie is English and obsessed with skiing whilst Marguerite is French and obsessed with opera singing, the overriding link is the very obsession which drives them. Both characters NEED that one activity that makes them feel alive, makes them feel free and makes them feel joy unlike any other. Both are based on true stories, with Marguerite being loosely based on  the life of Florence Foster Jenkins (a Meryl Streep-staring biography is out later this year). The crucial difference, however, is that Eddie could ski and had only practised ski jumping a year prior to entering the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. Marguerite has apparently been singing all of her life and cannot sing. It’s not just that she cannot sing, every single note she produces is so off-key and categorically awful, and she doesn’t even know it. All Margurite knows is the joy she feels when releasing the notes, not the fact they are atonal and truly, utterly dreadful. Her husband and friends, either out of loyalty, shame or amusement have kept the truth from her. This tension leads to the aforementioned tragedy and comedy.

Lucien Beaumont (Sylvain Dieuaide), an infamous newspaper critic, has gatecrashed a party escorted by his Dadaist artist friend Kyrill Von Priest (Aubert Fenoy). His attention is immediately taken by aspiring singer Hazel (Christa Théret) who performs as warm-up to the host. Baroness Marguerite (Catherine Frot) sweeps into the reception room in her large manor home, her room filled with guests for her charity recital. France’s finest and mightest, who all belong to the exclusive Amadeus club which she is a part of, are all there to see her. Marguerite breezes through the room, practically gliding through her audience, escorted by her loyal manservant Madelbos (Denis Mpunga) whilst desperately searching for her husband Georgeos (André Marcon) in the audience. Upon reaching the stage which is filled with her orchestra she turns to face them, her eyes sparkling with sheer and utter joy, her face is set and ready for that first note. Her mouth widens, forming that first note. What comes out of her mouth is unlike anything Lucien has heard before – it’s awful. Marguerite is not singing, she’s screeching, her voice is the embodiment of  nails on a chalkboard or a cat screaming. Unbeknownst to Marguerite children run under tables away from her noise, many of the man sneak into a private room away from the horror. Lucien must restrain himself from laughing, Kyrill believes he has found modernist art  and Hazel tries to hide her embarrassment from the poor woman. Finally Marguerite stops and her audience erupt into applause and admiration, flowers are thrust upon her and her talent is heralded. Lucien is bemused – she clearly does not know as her small aristocratic society has not told her – and feels compelled to write a review which is ladden in euphemism and  backhanded sentiment. Marguerite does not read into it and is filled with joy at having her talent recognised. Events start to spiral, with a public concert planned. How will Marguerite cope when she discovers the truth? 

I should point out that the above paragraph covers roughly the first 15 minutes of the film, leaving a solid 1 and 3/4 for you to discover on your own. I’ve not even discussed the role of the clown and the bearded lady! Marguerite is not always easy to watch, at times her singing or the events that it leads to are utterly mortifying. However it must be acknowledging that the mortification we feel on her behalf  is due to how well the story is told to allow us to connect with Marguerite and possible even empathise with her. It would be so much easier to have a film about a bad singer and laugh at her bad singing. Instead what we have here is so much more complex, layered and pleasurable to watch. We root for Marguerite, we hope for her and we fear for her – whether that be about a performance or comments that are about to be made about her.

Marguerite devoids herself to her craft, she spends everything on collecting props, music sheets, attending performances and supporting new talent. She has an all-consuming need to perform, which leads to unspoken clashes with her seemingly-cold and adulterous husband. Never has a film character been so in need of a hug. There’s something so child-like about Marguerite, something so amusing yet bitterly sad. It’s a true tribute to the talent of the filmmakers and the actress herself that we connect with her the way we do, encouraging her even though we easily recognise how talented she is in her chosen field.  Then somehow, throughout all this, we ultimately feel uplifted watching her journey. We all have something we pursue or like to believe we are really good at, even when we’re not At this point I’m really hoping you’re not thinking, ‘Ha! Yeah you are your film reviews”, but then Marguerite suggests that the opinion that others have about your talent should not be the one that is heralded, it should be your own and how it makes you that counts. And if how I feel about writing these reviews, and you out there hopefully reading them, is only a fraction of how singing makes Marguerite feel then I fully understand her.

It feels too overly simplistic to say this film is painful yet funny or that it is hilarious yet heartbreaking. It’s soul-baring exploration of passion. Exquisite.