Earlier in 2016, discerning art-house audiences might have seen a thinly repackaged French version of the Florence Foster Jenkins legend, Xavier Giannoli’s “Marguerite.” The concept of an aging socialite determined to become a well-renowned opera singer, despite having no natural vocal gifts, presents many fascinating angles of examination for art, class and power. Giannoli chose neither of these; as I wrote in April, “Apathy and ambivalence, more than ambiguity, drive the proceedings.”
The story makes much more sense, anyways, in its native United States. Here, our national mythology declares that if you can dream it, you can be it. Our social structures also tend to dictate that those with the money can exert an inordinate influence over what qualifies as “art” and tip the scales in their own favor wherever they choose. Florence Foster Jenkins’ ruse for aesthetic beauty and admiration feels like a true creation of her country – only in America, right?
Yet Stephen Frears’ film “Florence Foster Jenkins” suffers from the same affliction as “Marguerite.” With so many doors from which to choose, the filmmakers linger in the lobby. By placing Florence at the center of the narrative, she becomes a de facto object of our pity and sympathy. The extent of Frears’ challenges to her is cutaways to the aghast expressions on all those indulging Florence’s pipe dreams. It’s the equivalent of replying to a tweet with a witty reaction GIF, and these shots feel cheap compared to the committed physicality Meryl Streep puts behind Florence.
If any question of note is raised by the film, it’s that of the vitriol directed at Florence from a disapproving public. The crowds who gather to hear her screeches express their disgust in varying degrees of openness, ranging from murmured snickering to outright boos. Of course, everyone should expect a certain decorum and humanity when responding to art. But when the primary justification for her shrill attempts at opera is merely that she exerts an honorable effort, the crowd has a right to get a little irate. Yes, the banal can besmirch the extraordinary.
In many ways, “Florence Foster Jenkins” resembles another character in the film more than the one for which it is named. That personality would be Hugh Grant’s Sinclair, the jaded lover of Florence as well as her chief apologist and enabler. If anyone were to make a stand for great art and put an end to her stunt, it would be him. Yet Sinclair is in no position bring Florence down to earth because he himself has not relinquished the charade of becoming a great actor in his own right. He embodies the inherent contradiction of the film: what looks like the American Dream could merely be the American Sham. B- /