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.