'People may say I can't sing, but no one can ever say I didn't sing.' Jenkins.
The story of Marguerite Daumont is inspired by one of the most colourful divas ever, Florence Foster Jenkins who was born in 1851. Both Marguerite in the film and Jenkins before her, truly believed in their outstanding singing abilities but the truth is neither Marguerite or Jenkins had any sense of pitch or rhythm and were barely capable of sustaining a note - Jenkins is considered one of the worst singers of all time, as the many YouTube videos of her performances audibly demonstrate.
Marguerite is not the only version of Jenkin's life that has been performed as there have been five plays, most of which were aimed at poking fun. One was Peter Quilter’s Glorious! Which played in the West End a decade ago with Maureen Lipman in the lead role. In May, Stephen Frears is releasing a film with Meryl Streep playing Florence Foster Jenkins.
This version, Xavier Giannoli’s Marguerite, is also a comedy: surreal but also tragic, sumptuous, exotic, intimate and beautifully filmed. There are some very intuitive shots seen from behind the action, curving slowly to a full reveal, laying bare the intensity of a moment. Marguerite as played by Catherine Frot, both displays a luminosity, a glowingly translucent sorrow deep in her eyes which says far more than words and manages to emanate at the opposite end of the spectrum dignified grandeur. She is magnificent either wearing a peacock feather, harnessed to a set of wings, or posed dramatically in operatic death scenes, never failing to impress by her almost empress-like presence.
As well as telling Marguerite's story, Director Giannoli ably invokes the surreal with the wispy presence of a bearded lady fortune teller, a deaf pianist who lip-reads singers - an advantage some might say in working with a tone deaf opera star - a tiny man whose father was once employed to boo Victor Hugo off the stage but whose role is now to subcontract professional clappers to encourage multiple encores for Marguerite. With an element of farce and certainly burlesque, this mixed troupe give is rise to wry smiles as Marguerite prepares for the final performance of her life.
But for me this film was less about Marguerite's embarrassing atonal renderings of classical operatic pieces and more how 'Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge,' as Charles Darwin observed. Especially when Marguerite's husband, trusted servants, so called friends and more blatant exploitive hangers-on desperately collude in an implicit understanding that nobody will tell her the truth. They all actively encourage Marguerite's delusion that she is a much loved and impressive diva for their own reasons: at best the fear that the truth will destroy her, or the difficultly of exposing the deceit after so long, and at worst because they are making money out of her spectacular performances.
Madelbos' (Denis Mpunga) Marguerite's butler, ever protective of Marguerite, cutting out bad reviews and arranging for masses of white flowers to be delivered supposedly from her admirers, seemed initially to be the only person who had any sympathy with Marguerite. But then we find his mania for immortalising everything that happens with his flash and bang - literally - photos, directing his mistress to pose in tinted tableau-vivants—Salome and Brünnhilde and more – serves only his own interests. He intends to sell them after she becomes more famous, or notorious.
Marguerite herself may have been bad at singing but she was comfortable, safe, noticed and valued in her world of diva, experiencing through it the essential nurturing she was missing from life with her husband George (Andre Marcon). He publicly supported a mistress, had only married Marguerite for her money, considered her 'A sort of freak,' was ashamed of her performances, and did everything he could to prevent them, encouraging her to go shopping instead. It is no wonder Marguerite, like a child ignored, pursed her passion and enthusiasm for music and extravagant showmanship with such displaced and unflagging energy. It took George's mistress, Francoise Bellaire (Astrid Whettnall), to make George aware that Marguerite was doing it because it was the only way she could gain his attention.
At the end of the day Marguerite is the one honest person left in this film. After a final dramatic performance where she is mocked, laughed off stage and very publicly humiliated, her colluding inner circle are exposed as frauds, self seekers and morally naked. While throughout Marguerite displays a fragile strength, nobility, a generosity of spirit and tremendous empathy for others which lead those around her, rather late in the day, on to realise just how magnificent she is. Not as a singer though, but as a person. Ultimately Marguerite pays the price of their manipulation when her friends and family conspire to assuage their collective guilt and engineer an occasion that she does not survive.
Marguerite is now showing at FACT, check times and book your tickets here.