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Florence Foster Jenkins 1868 to 1944

Posted by keith1942 on May 19, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins

This New York character has been presented in several theatrical plays. Currently she is the subject of two films: one, Marguerite, using her story in a different period and setting and the other, Florence Foster Jenkins, translating the later recorded years of her life to the screen with a few embellishments. I saw the French film first, which gave it an advantage. But having now seen both I think it is the better film, if the less accurate biopic.

Given the advance publicity and trailers for the two films it is not a plot give-away to note that Jenkin’s fame or notoriety stemmed from her being an amateur performer who was often labelled the ‘worse singer in the world’. In a detailed biography Wikipedia notes that she

“was an American socialite and amateur operatic soprano who was known and ridiculed for her lack of rhythm, pitch, and tone, her aberrant pronunciation, and her generally poor singing ability.”

As is apparent in the films she became an object of fun for many people who heard her performances, usually private, but in her final year public, at the noted New York Carnegie Hall. The films fill out these in rather different ways and there will be plot spoilers below.

Catherine Frot

Catherine Frot

Marguerite is set in 1920s France and stars Catherine Frot in the title role, a performance that won her a César as Best Actress. This was deserved award. Frot imbues the role with plausibility but also achieves a deluded sincerity that is likely to win audience sympathy, despite her musical histrionics. André Marcon is also excellent as the loving but embarrassed husband. In a neat French twist, whilst he sincerely cares for Marguerite he also has a regular mistress. One of the qualities of the film is the way that it fills out French upper-class society in which Marguerite and her husband move. The accompanying aspect is the way that we also enter the world of professional music and musical criticism. Here we have three very good performances by Sylvain Dieuaide as Lucian Beaumont, a journalist: Aubert Fenoy as Kyrill Von Priest, who has touches of the Dada movement about him: and Christa Théret as Hazel Klein, a professional singer who develops a romantic relationship with Lucien. This trio help fill out the context of period and place but also qualify the responses to Marguerite’s performances.

The film also has a villain in the person of her butler Madelbos (Denis Mpunga). He keeps a photographic record of Marguerite, which we  realise late in the film is his passport to financial rewards. The fact that he is the only notable black character in the film left me ambivalent.

The film was written and directed by Xavier Giannoli. I saw his earlier film The Singer / Quand j’étais chanteur (2006) . There is a thematic connection here but I think Marguerite is the better realised project. It is ably served by the cinematography by Glynn Speeckaert  and production design by Martin Kurel.

Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant

Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant

Florence Foster Jenkins is set in 1940s New York and presents the final year or so of the title character. She is played here by Meryl Streep with Hugh Grant playing her ‘common law husband’ St Clair Bayfield. The pair are very good and play the characters fairly sympathetically but I did not feel that they generated that much sympathy for either character. I think this partly down to casting. Meryl Streep is a fine actor but she is also rather technical. I can admire her performance but I am also conscious that it is a performance. Whilst Hugh Grant is associated with fairly light characters and Bayfield appears of this order. The French actors tended to let you forget they were performing much of the time. I never quite felt this in this version. And there is the effect of star casting. The most poorly judged instance of this was Hugh Grant being given a brief party spot where he performs the jitterbug. This seemed to have little to do with the plot. And whilst there is also a mistress in this film it is all rather seemly and even a little coy.

But I think the main factor is the script, which, of course, positions and limits the actors. This was written by Nicholas Martin. His writing career started with travel pieces. He studied at the UK’s National Film and Television School. He then wrote for Television, the only series he has contributed to that I have seen is Midsummer Murders. This is his first feature film script to be produced. I always thought Midsummer Murders was rather light compared with my favourite Inspector Morse. And I feel the same about this film. It seems to aim for a ‘feel-good’ air. The French film is definitely melodrama.

The script does include the information that Jenkins suffered from syphilis, caught from her first husband. But this serious note is not really developed and its function in the plot seemed mainly to explain [again with good taste] that Bayfield and Jenkins relationship is not sexual. I also thought the dialogue presents them as formally married, not as a common law relationship. There is no real villain. We do meet Agnes (Nina Arlanda) who laughs louder than anyone at a Jenkins performance. But then, at Carnegie Hall, it is Agnes who silences the laughter and enables Florence to feel she is a success. The music critics are cyphers, either suborned by Bayfield or in one solitary case reacting critically.

The director of this latter film is Stephen Frears. He is what is described as a metteur en scène: I use the term descriptively not evaluatively. His films are very much constructed in co-cooperation with the production team, especially the writer. At its best we get a landmark film like My Beautiful Laundrette (1985). But here I felt that Frears presented rather than transformed the material. In fact, the best bits for me were the scenes where we watch exciting visual compositions, notably the final Carnegie Hall concert. Presumably Frears making good use of  the cinematography by  Danny Cohen  the and Production Design by  Alan MacDonald. The film creates New York from UK locations and there is some good CGI work, including the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge.

Both projects appear to have started off in 2014. Presumably at some point each production became aware of the other, especially as there is French funding in both productions. The French film was released in September 2015 whereas the British film only came out in April 2016. The French film was presented at several festivals, starting in Venice. The British film only had one Festival appearance, in Belfast. In Britain there has been different certification. Florence Foster Jenkins has a PG, despite the reference to syphilis. Marguerite has a 15 Certificate, all those French innuendos. Outside of France Florence Foster Jenkins is doing better box office. In the UK it has already taken well over twenty times the amount achieved by Marguerite. Of course, the contemporary market here [and in many other territories] is skewed against the foreign language film.

The films are fairly different in all sorts of ways. However, both use imagery from the life of the actual Jenkins. The notable example being a costume with angels’ wings that she used for her public performance. Both use original scoring and operatic extracts, though Marguerite uses them more extensively. The character of Hazel enables some fine [as opposed to less fine] singing. The public performance is the climax in each film. And both essay to achieve a moment of catharsis. In Marguerite this is a moment of seeming magic, which just about convinces. In Florence Foster Jenkins it is the efforts of Agnes, which also works, partly due to the performance. And both films end with the impact of reality: tragic in Marguerite but more feel-good in Florence Foster Jenkins.

Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) UK/France.

Marguerite (2015) France / Czech Republic / Belgium.

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