Florence Foster Jenkins (July 19, 1868 – November 26, 1944) was an eccentric socialite who sang opera as a hobby. Extant recordings exist and Jenkins was tone deaf and off key more or less all the time. The French film Marguerite takes that conceit and runs full force down the field.
Fictionalizing much of the external facts, Marguerite turns FFJ into Marguerite Dumont (a dazzling Catherine Frot), which itself slyly refers to Margaret Dumont who was a comic foil for Groucho Marx in several of the Marx Brothers films. Marguerite holds invitation only recitals in her grand country mansion where the servants applaud while the gentlemen scramble to an adjoining room to duck the cacophony. The setting is the 1920s.
Her chauffer and main servant Madelbos (Denis Mpunga) documents her various costumes (wings are popular) that she designs and wears to get into character. It’s Madelbos’ photography that bookends the film – one photo session is grand and poetic and another photo session filled with pathos. Madelbos may also be considered somewhat of an enabler as he clips bad newspaper reviews and hides them from his mistress.
Likewise Marguerite’s husband always seems to find an excuse like car trouble to avoid attending his wife’s performances. Like the real FFJ, Marguerite only performs in a public auditorium for a paying crowd once. Anarchists use the event for their own agenda. They consider Marguerite a kind of surreal performance artist and revel in the fact that she’s so bad she’s good.
Fans of opera (who no doubt know about the legacy of FFJ) will easily recognize the many musical cues, from Delibes’ “Duo des fleurs” (Lakmé) to Mozart’s “Queen of the Night,” one of the hardest opera pieces to sing. Marguerite has a light comic flair that doesn’t so much make fun of its characters as explore the milieu in which such amusing mismatches of artistry and society could take place.
Marguerite opens exclusively this weekend at the Landmark River Oaks Theatre.
— Michael Bergeron