“Florence Foster Jenkins”

The French film ” Marguerite” was reviewed April 2, 2016 in my blog <www.filmflamb.wordpress.com.>  Five  months later, I find myself reviewing  the American version of this  deluded songstress.  Both  quasi- biographical takes of the Florence Foster Jenkins story are worthy of genuflection.

Director Stephen Frears, of ” Philomena” fame, ( reviewed February 12th , 2015) and the  talented writer Nicholas Martin  bring  us a sweeter tale. As Huge Grant , in a tad more snarky than saccharine aside,  says ” ours is a very happy world”.

Grant provides the best performance of his career as Jenkin’s charmingly Earlish husband and caregiver. He knows how his bread is buttered. Half cad, half protector, Grant has never been more tender as he removes his wife’s glued on lashes and wig. As the suave, privileged and ” betuxed” St. Clair, he is at home with ,” A taxi if I may”.

He controls all he can. In one scene, a half dozen auditioning pianists are sitting and waiting to vie for a  well-paid position. Grant glides by and admonishes them with ” those chairs are not for practical use, you have been told.” He is both touching and touchy, devoted and self-serving, a fawner  and a scoffer, both loyal and disloyal. Even with Meryl Streep’s admirable performance, Grant is the star here. We have never seen him better. “Reading a little Austen” may be my favorite line!  As is  his twinkling “love takes many forms”.

The French film  is more true to the actual meaning of Jenkins’ life. Both films include the mistress and the accompanist/pianist, but in strikingly different ways. In “Marguerite”, Florence spots her husband with his mistress and is devastated rather than like in this film, having him actually live in a love/party nest that she pays for. In this American film,Mistress Kathleen is named and lives as a demanding second wife with St. Clair Bayfield.

Costuming is over the top in both films including Victoria Secret angel wings to turbans , tiaras, and pearls.  Streep’s headdresses  shimmer with her every screech. From the beginning tableaux, she is the “deus ex machina” of the screen. We expect the best from her. Here she give the worst ~the best, and does not disappoint. Her “stay the night” oozes loneliness, and her briefcase lugging underscores that she knows inherently where her power lies. We all want loyalty. She knows deep down that she buys hers.

Streep does a wonderfully understated scene as she explains to her pianist Cosme McMoon ( Simon Helberg ) that she has dealt with the ravages of syphilis for fifty- years, her first husband’s ” gift”!  At other times, she seems to be channeling Lucille Ball ( not a bad thing). The maestro’s  litany of instructions: ” Raise the soft palate”, “On the breath”, “Use the air”, ” Project forward”, ” Find the breath, Florence” lead to  hysterical results.

Simon Helberg rounds out the incredible acting . As Cosme McMoon, his mime-like expressions when Streep begins her caterwauling are priceless. It is through his questioning  and their conversing that we learn how she met her second husband and see how sharp objects unbalance the little ballast that she has. When they play Chopin together, it is marvelously sad. There are some funny touches. Florence is fond of music, yes, but also of sandwiches and potato salad. One image has a server scooping out large serving spoonfuls from a bath tub.

The French film’s setting is more opulent, 1920  Gatsby style. There are fifty or more servants, marbled entryways and gardened grounds. The American film is more Victorian in decor with only one servant, Kitty.  The American film begins in New York, 1944, the year of Jenkins ‘s death. I liked the darker French version with its theme of lust for fame. The American “Florence Jenkins Foster” has Foster comparing herself to Churchill,  while bringing in war veterans, Cole Porter and Tallullah Bankhead. It is more farcical and underscores ” singing your heart out”. The French film was more vainglorious spectacle.

Streep’s death- bed remarks of ” no one can say I didn’t sing” has that ” at least I tried” kind of ring. The French are a tad more demanding  and judgmental of life choices.



View this film to see a peacock groomed, literally and figuratively. View this film to see how the French view the moneyed class a century after Balzac’s “Pere Goriot”.(1831). View Director Xavier Giannoli’s sixth film to see a mature woman crying for attention while surrounded by self-serving hypocrisy.

“Marguerite” is a tragicomedy that will assault your ears and delight your eyes. A lovely period piece with its pre-1920’s flapper silk, feather and pearl images flowing through flowered parlors and red-flocked opium dens. All reminding us what it must have been like to have twenty-five servants at your beck and call leaving one time to endulge one’s passion, even when one’s only talent is in indulging.

Based loosely on the American socialite Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944) , the French-subtitled feature film highlights romantic delusion more comically than Truffaut’s “Adelle H”, still a favorite of mine with the same theme of “passion gone astray.”

Marguerite’s passion is classical music. She listens to Mozart, Bizet, Handel,  Verdi et.al. five hours a day. Catherine Frot plays the “tableau vivant” whose costumes, coy poses, and eccentric baroness airs will seem brave for some viewers and delusional for others. I tend to fall in the second camp.

What is wrong with Madame Marguerite Durmont’s  vision of herself ?  Well, it leads to  too much drama, too many users, and a heartful of loneliness. The wealthy can be as mad as they wish, but they will pay for their madness.

There are no really likeable characters in the entire film. Hazel (Christa Theret) ,the young engenue, is talented and knowing, yet chooses to play along with others more interested in fleecing  Marguerite’s than in exorcizing her demons. Georges ( Andre Macron), Marguerite’s husband, prefers her to “lie-in or go shopping” to humiliating them all with her caterwauling. When Georges explains the beaded silk stole as a ” farewell gift” to his mistress, we laugh cynically. Michel Fau as Marguerite’s voice instructor, Alos Pezzini, delights in many scenes, but one of the most interesting characters is Madelbros. ( Denis M’Punga) , the pianist butler, photographer and fiancée to the bearded-woman Tarot reader. It is his persistent photo developing that captures the attention-seeking off-key sadness of Marguerite. She tells us that the truth is that ” I love suffering !”

This romantic fantasy or life of deceit (depending on your view) has its moments. Marguerite, who only eats white food because of its brilliance, will touch some. The old saw: ” Delusional if you are a bag lady, eccentric if you are a baroness” leads to some flashes of perception for Marguerite , but she quickly moves on to play acting or suffering. Madness and death, the paths of least resistance, follow.

Best lines are “Cancel the plan” and “Money doesn’t matter, what matters is having it”, and “I have doubts about my high notes”, ” I tried to make you proud, but you took me to the mad house.” ,and finally, ” You crave adulation like a child”.