“Opera Meets Film” is a feature dedicated to exploring the way that opera has been employed in cinema. We will select a section or a film in its entirety, highlighting the impact that utilizing the operatic form or sections from an opera can alter our perception of a film that we are viewing. This week’s installment will look at two interpretations of the life of “Florence Foster Jenkins.”
Back in early 2016, the world clamored over Meryl Streep’s interpretation as the famed (or infamous) Florence Foster Jenkins. The film was a major hit, earning the legendary actress an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Raking in over $56 million worldwide, it was considered a smash-hit.
But it wasn’t the first film to take a look at the unique figure in the world of opera. A few months earlier, French director, Xavier Giannoli released “Marguerite,” a film based loosely on the life of Foster Jenkins that was a massive critical success with the 41 César Awards.
It’s fascinating that the two productions came out so close to one another, especially considering that to that point, there had been no fiction film based on her story.
Florence Foster Jenkins was a wealthy music patron who was an amateur musician, who unwittingly had no idea that she was nowhere near a singer of great quality. But fortune has a way of getting people through the door and Jenkins not only managed to buy her way into recording an album (that remains a source of controversy decades later) but also got to stage an infamous recital at Carnegie Hall.
For some perspective on Foster Jenkins’ singing, voila:
So what of the two films?
Two Different Approaches
It is truly interesting to see how the two approach the subject matter of this woman’s life. The Streep film, directed by Stephen Frears, leaves no doubt that it wants to be a straight-up biopic and as such, it hues closely to the major events of her later life, leading up to her death. “Marguerite,” however, in avoiding the use of Foster Jenkins’ name and setting it in France, is able to do a lot more with the material.
For one, the tones are completely different. “Florence Foster Jenkins” is a comedy with a tragic end while “Marguerite” is a tragedy with comedic elements. The former adores its title character, casting her, in Streep’s interpretation, as an eccentric woman. The film takes time to establish her benevolence before letting us hear her sing. “Marguerite’s” relationship to its protagonist is far more ambiguous. The film certainly wants us to connect and empathize with her, but there are suggestions of her own madness. She is introduced as a big diva and the audience is left to anticipate her greatness when she strides before the orchestra to sing her first note. And when she does, we can’t help but laugh at her. She’s a fraud. “Florence Foster Jenkins” never makes us feel like Florence is a fraud in the least. This ambivalent relationship bears fruit at the end of the film when Marguerite’s fraudulent nature comes to the forefront as she truly believes her own artistic greatness. When she is finally confronted with the truth of her artistic failure, it is so difficult to bear, that she ultimately dies. Streep’s character also suffers an emotional shock after reading the reviews of her concert and ultimately dies, but the ending of the film, as presented is a victory for her character.
“People may say I couldn’t sing, but no one can say I didn’t sing,” she utters in her final lines.
Marguerite gets no such respite. Her performance, while seemingly finding beauty is cut short by a vocal rupture and silence. Florence gets to finish hers to thunderous applause.
More interesting perhaps is how “Marguerite” and “Florence Foster Jenkins” approach the milieu of their title character rather differently. “Florence Foster Jenkins” hints at others, such as famed conductor Arturo Toscanini, wanted to get her financial support. But the exploitation never dives as deeply as the French film does. We don’t even meet Marguerite at the start of the film, Giannoli more interested in establishing the world around her. Her mansion, where she is to give a private recital for the benefit of soldiers of war (“Florence Foster Jenkins” also opens with a benefit concert, though she doesn’t sing), is littered with hypocritical servants, an absent husband who can’t stand to hear her, cynical critics, and lecherous members of the club she is a part of. People support Florence Foster Jenkins for her bravery, but everyone sees Marguerite as a joke from the start (the film makes a point that it is the silence and hypocrisy of these people toward Marguerite’s lack of talent that is at fault for her ultimate fate). Marguerite is then used by an anarchic artist for his own games, using her poor singing ability to desecrate the French National Anthem, “La Marseillaise,” for his own exploits. It causes her great humiliation before other people of her stature and emphasizes a rift with her husband. Her loyal servant Madelbos is seen as being at her service for everything, but ultimately, as the narrative progresses, we see that he too is exploiting her for his own creative purposes, taking pictures of her with the hope that her legend will one day make his photographs famous.
The character of Cosmé McMoon is adapted heavily in “Marguerite,” transforming into the failed musician Atos Pezzino, who brings along his own entourage to suck money from Marguerite’s ambitions to sing. Like McMoon in “Florence Foster Jenkins,” Pezzino resists working with Marguerite but is ultimately blackmailed into doing so by Madelbos (McMoon is convinced in a less aggressive manner by Bayfield).
Then there’s her husband, Georges, who like Bayfield, is living off her riches. Both men have mistresses, though there is no doubt that Hugh Grant’s Bayfield is a benevolent man who we see as ever-loving and supportive of Florence. Georges, on the other hand, is despicable and harsh toward his wife, the audience seeing him as a repugnant being. So much of the movie centers on how her artistic aims are a byproduct of trying to get his attention (the repetitions of this theme can be a bit didactic after a while), that we see how he exploits her for his own success. Of course, “Marguerite” takes great pains to develop Georges and make him realize the error of his ways, allowing the viewer to slowly see him as a complex but ultimately redeemable person.
But “Marguerite” aims higher in other respects, with the theme of exploitation. The film is divided into five chapters, each one often bookended with a vocal passage from a supporting character of the film – Hazel Klein. Hazel is actually our point of reference at the start of the movie. We enter Marguerite’s world with her, giving the audience a sense that she might be the protagonist. But once Marguerite arrives on the scene, Hazel appears very little.
The key to Hazel is that she is a truly gifted singer. The movie makes it clear that she studied at the Conservatory and that her talent is greatly admired. But alas, we also see her sing to empty concert halls and constantly hear of her artistic growing pains. This is contrasted with Marguerite being able to easily buy her way with money, winning over her own entourage that is attracted to her via this sole means. It is not necessarily a condemnation of Marguerite as a person, but the society that values the wrong things and will look the other way. Moreover, the constant reminder of good singing only amplifies and questions the nature of Marguerite’s artistic ambitions and decisions (Frears’ film seldom forces us into this comparison with the exception of the inspirational performance by Aida Garifullina as Lily Pons).
By contrast, the world of “Florence Foster Jenkins” is less hostile and more amicable. During her infamous recital, she is ridiculed by drunk sailors, but people ultimately defend her. “Marguerite’s” recital has a sense of foreboding and death, with the laughter coming with the built-in excuse of ignorance, but from the entire audience of a vast array of people from all circles of life.
Ultimately, this comparison serves to explore a rather divergent perspective on cinematic styles of two countries. The Hollywood way has always been about optimism and “happy endings,” while the European, specifically French, manner of making films takes a more panoramic view.