Two ladies who couldn’t sing by Richard Jones


MarA look at Florence Foster JenkinsMargueriteFlorence

TWO recent releases from very different directors have both focussed on the life of wannabe operatic soprano Florence Foster Jenkins.

The French version is set two decades before the actual events of 1944 in Florence’s life occurred but the film – simply called Marguerite – is no less entertaining.

Catherine Frot plays the central character who is a wealthy socialite and a lover of the arts: particularly music from world-famous operas.

It’s Jazz Age Paris of the early 1920s and Marguerite’s aristocratic husband Georges Dumont (Andre Marcon) is hopeless in business and hopeless in love. He maintains a supposedly secret mistress closer to town.

Marguerite does have a devoted butler cum accompanist in Madelbos (Denis Mpunga). Madelbos seems a tad scary, to me anyway, and he has a creepy hobby whereby he films Marguerite’s every move at social events, rehearsals and eventually concerts with his big, stills camera. Complete with tripod.

Maybe it’s the absence of love at home at her enormous country mansion which propels Marguerite into her singing career, although it must be said that early on she sings only at soirees for invited guests and family members.

Georges and her friends bolster Marguerite’s fantasy that she’s a great soprano as she belts out exuberant but completely off-key renditions of classic solos – with Madelbos on piano – to polite but secretly amused guests.

All that changes one afternoon when over the perimeter brick fence come two young uninvited Parisian avant-gardists. One is a smarmy anarchist (Aubert Fenoy) while Lucien (Sylvain Dieuaide) is a journalist.

They run a glowing review of her private concert in Paris’ main newspaper and then arrange special lessons for Marguerite with scandal-smudged opera singer Atos Pezzini (Michael Fau).

After a number of excruciating one-on-one sessions with Pezzini, Marguerite ends up on stage at the Paris Opera with Madelbos dutifully clicking away off-stage.

And the two young Parisian Jazz Age aficionados in the audience. Of course.

Meryl Streep plays Florence Foster Jenkins in the film of the same name. It’s really a biopic set in 1944 as World War 2 grinds to its conclusion.

Florence is a New York socialite and patron of the arts who performs for select audiences at the exclusive Verdi Club.

But the beautiful voice she hears in her head as she opens her mouth and lets go isn’t what the listeners hear.

Fortunately, Florence has a devoted husband and manager in St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant). St Clair is a not-so-hot actor who has performed in Hamlet many times but “not in the title role.”

He protects her assiduously from the mockers and scoffers who heap scorn on her atonal efforts.

St Clair tells Florence any criticism of her singing is ridiculous. “You are authentic,” he tells her. 

“How many other singers can say that they’re completely authentic.”

Actually, Grant is in career best form in this movie. I can’t recall anything from the last decade or so in which he’s been better.

It’s when they hire a particular accompanist for Florence that the movie really starts to hum along.

He’s geeky Mr McMoon (Simon Helberg from TV’s The Big Bang Theory) and he virtually steals the show.

Initially shattered that he has to play piano alongside such a flawed artist McMoon overcomes his inhibitions and agrees to accompany her in her biggest venture: an October 1944 concert in the world-renowned Carnegie Hall.

En route to the film’s climax St Clair and McMoon are together at a big party. It’s at the Manhattan apartment owned by St Clair (via Florence’s money) and his much younger girlfriend has arranged the party.

Grant engages in a terrific dance routine to the strains of Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa’s Sing Sing Sing big band classic.

And then it’s on to Carnegie Hall, a concert from which one 78rpm recording has actually survived. Florence has organised free tickets for a thousand servicemen and the place is packed, with connoisseurs as well as military people.

This movie is great. It’s frequently hilarious although

Madam Florence is an extremely likeable character and the film has poignant moments.

None more so than when Florence reveals to St. Clair how her health had slowly deteriorated after she contracted syphilis from her first husband on their wedding night.

Marguerite (M): director Xavier Giannoli

Florence Foster Jenkins (PG): director Stephen Frears

The projectionist at our little local arthouse cinema, the Star in Eaglehawk, told us the other day patronage for Marguerite had been down.

I’d say it’s the old bugbear. Older cinemagoers aren’t keen on attending films where they have to read sub-titles.

And Florence has been screening – and still is  – at the local big CBD multiplex in Bendigo even though it’s down to a single showing per day.


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