The fine French drama Marguerite fictionalizes the life of American socialite Florence Foster Jenkins, whose vocal performances of classical arias, beginning in private music clubs and culminating in a 1944 recital at Carnegie Hall, have earned her a large and respectful entry in the encyclopedia of bad. “She clucked and squawked, trumpeted and quavered,” reports a 1957 story in Coronet magazine. “She couldn’t carry a tune. Her sense of rhythm was uncertain. In the treacherous upper registers, her voice often vanished into thin air.” Published accounts of Jenkins’s life are relatively short, and all seem to be cut from the same cloth, which has helped turn her story into popular myth. Her dubious career has already inspired five plays, and later this spring Paramount Pictures will release Stephen Frears’s Florence Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep. In a world obsessed with amateur singing competitions that can end in triumph or humiliation, Jenkins is an artist whose time has come.
The central question of any movie about her must be: Was she oblivious to how bad she sounded, or was she in on the joke, cynically taking advantage of her wealth and position to indulge her love of music and buy herself a career? Marguerite opts for oblivion. Writer-director Xavier Giannoli tips his hand immediately by naming his middle-aged protagonist the Baroness Marguerite Dumont—after Margaret Dumont, the grande dame of the Marx Brothers movies, who Groucho claimed never got any of their jokes. Played with touching warmth and vulnerability by Catherine Frot, Marguerite simply can’t countenance the idea that she has no vocal ability, and people are so affected by her sweetness, generosity, and high spirits that they won’t level with her. Giannoli opens with a shot of a giant eyeball, one of the many operatic stage props in Marguerite’s collection, being rolled out of frame by some children at play; despite the mixed metaphor (ears don’t roll), this is a tale about the difficulty of ever apprehending oneself.
Jenkins remains a potent figure in popular culture partly because of the gender overtones to her story. Her father, Charles Foster, a wealthy landowner in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, tolerated her childhood career as a piano prodigy but forbade her from pursuing music professionally after she graduated from high school in 1885. She promptly eloped with a doctor, Frank Jenkins, but after contracting syphilis from him, she ended the relationship and lived in near poverty as a music teacher before her mother set her up in New York City. After Charles Foster died in 1909, his daughter won the ultimate revenge by using his fortune to launch her new career as a soprano. Around that same time she also struck up a romantic relationship with the British actor St. Clair Bayfield, though she retained her husband’s name—as well as his disease, which she would battle with mercury and arsenic treatments for the rest of her life.
These indelicate details have been scrubbed away in Marguerite, but Giannoli transmutes them into the story of an unloved wife seeking from an audience the validation her husband won’t provide. Georges (André Marcon), a businessman preoccupied with the French reconstruction after World War I, fakes car trouble to avoid Marguerite’s cacophonous performance at a charity event they’re hosting, which wounds her. When she mentions to him that her friend Francoise is opening her own gallery and writing for a magazine, Georges advises her, “You should have a good sleep and lie in all morning. Then why not go shopping?” A subsequent shot reveals Margaret sitting alone in her study, despondent in a long-beaked opera mask. Later we learn that Georges is secretly sleeping with Francoise, telling her that Marguerite is “no longer a woman. She’s turned into a sort of freak.”
That opinion would surely devastate Marguerite, but there are almost as many perceptions of her as there are characters. The aforementioned charity gala, staged as a sweeping narrative set piece a la The Leopard or The Godfather, brings together Hazel Klein (Christa Théret), a lovely and gifted young soprano engaged by the baroness to perform as part of the program, and Lucien Beaumont (Sylvain Dieuaide), a vicious young music critic who infiltrates the event hoping finally to hear this talked-about noblewoman. Riding home from the event with the monocle-sporting poet and anarchist named Kyril Von Priest (Aubert Fenoy), they debate whether their hostess can hear herself. Lucien argues that no singer can, though Hazel knows from her own experience that good ones listen to themselves. She sees in Marguerite the sort of genuine emotion that powers a great artist, though Lucien considers the baroness a fraud. His subsequent review is a tongue-in-cheek affair reporting that Marguerite “seemed to be trying to exorcise an inner demon,” her voice betraying “a human truth that rends the heart.”
Kyril’s perspective on Marguerite may be the most pertinent to our own age of ironic T-shirts and movies so bad they’re good. “She’s utterly mad! Bravo!” he shouts after the baroness butchers Mozart’s “Der Hölle Rache” from The Magic Flute. For Kyril the performance is revelatory, an assault on bourgeois culture. Preying on Marguerite’s ambition, he invites her to take part in a small concert honoring the war dead in Paris, with dignitaries attending and a motion picture screening. The event turns out to be a dadaist stunt in which various officials and their wives have been invited to a performing space on the pretext of meeting Charlie Chaplin but instead are treated to Marguerite vocally dismantling “La Marseillaise” as silent footage of French soldiers in combat is projected against her white gown. The ensuing scandal gets Marguerite thrown out of her local arts club; in defiance she decides to stage a full-fledged public recital so her artistry can finally be appreciated.
Despite being used so cruelly, Marguerite comes away from Kyril with a new perspective on herself, one more consistent with his view of her as an outsider artist. “What if they pelt me with tomatoes?” she asks her butler as she’s dressing for the performance. “Someone should throw artworks at tomatoes for a change.” Called on the carpet by the board of her club, Marguerite is berated for dishonoring the national anthem. “A lady of your rank should not engage in stunts with petty anarchists, Bolshevists, extremists, avant-gardists, and whatnot,” argues one dowager. “In these troubled times, what can they contribute to society?” Marguerite’s one-word reply—”Freedom?”—barely registers with them, but Georges is struck by it. For her, music has become a means of escape.
Of course Marguerite’s real means of escape is money, which protects the bubble of her delusion and empowers her to construct an exciting self-image. Her private performances transpire at charity events she subsidizes heavily, which enforces her friends’ polite response to her caterwauling. Modeling her giant costume collection, she poses for an endless series of dramatic black-and-white photographs that are placed in gilt frames and lined up on her veranda for guests to admire. Her butler, Madelbos (Denis Mpunga)—a silent, glowering presence, like Erich von Stroheim in Sunset Boulevard—serves as photographer, indulging madame’s every fantasy; her servants clap obligingly after she reads them Lucien’s ostensibly glowing review. Preparing for her public debut, Marguerite hires the corpulent gay tenor Atos Pezzini (Michel Fau), whose paid staff includes his young boy toy (Théo Cholbi) and a bearded woman who reads tarot cards (Sophia Leboutte). All these leeches indulge Marguerite’s sense of destiny for their own selfish reasons—even Madelbos dreams of the day when her notoriety will make his photographs famous.
The life of Florence Foster Jenkins offers any dramatist a first-rate finale: two days after her Carnegie Hall performance brought gales of laughter from a sold-out house, she suffered a heart attack, and a month later she died at 76. The shock of exposure killed her—or so goes the myth. In fact Jenkins had performed publicly for years, refusing to acknowledge the insults of newspaper critics or the outbursts of audience members. But at some point in her career she must have privately confronted the fact that her appeal was other than musical. “On a stage a person will sometimes draw the attention of a whole audience,” remarked her partner, St. Clair Bayfield. “There’s something about her personality that makes everyone look at her with relish. That’s what Mrs. Jenkins had. . . . People may have laughed at her singing, but the applause was real.” Like any star, Jenkins looked to her audience for redemption.
Marguerite is more sensitive than Jenkins was, and the movie’s suspense is predicated on the worry that she’ll break like a china teacup when she learns the truth. Late in the story, Georges commits Marguerite to a sanitarium, and her psychiatrist, hoping to snap her back into reality, records her singing so that she can listen to herself on a phonograph. Hazel, Lucien, Pezzini, and his staff—all of whom have grown fond of Marguerite—provide a little audience as the doctor seats her before the sound horn and Madelbos sets up his camera to capture the moment of truth. Many people are shocked and discomfited when hearing their own voice played back to them—perhaps because, when we speak, we focus almost entirely on meaning, not sound. The question for Marguerite is whether, in finally hearing what others hear, she will become fully herself, or no one at all. v