When asked about his musical influences, David Bowie would occasionally mention Florence Foster Jenkins, a wealthy New York socialite with a dreadful voice who made recordings and played Carnegie Hall shortly before her death in 1944. Later this year, Meryl Streep will play Florence in a Stephen Frears biopic – but first this thoughtfully designed, César-winning film from writer-director Xavier Giannoli (‘The Singer’) reimagines her as a French heiress, Marguerite Dumont (Catherine Frot, bold and endearing), living near Paris immediately after the First World War, and takes Jenkins’s story in its own direction.
At first Marguerite sings only at soirées at home, with concerned husband Georges (André Marcon) looking on. But soon she’s performing in the city as the unwilling victim of an anarchist stunt, and it’s this unlikely urban patronage that leads to her being trained for greatness by Pezzini (Michel Fau), a well-known opera star on his uppers whose raging ego is eventually dampened in the presence of Marguerite’s strange, perhaps deluded, courage.
It’s clear to all that Marguerite’s talent is, at best, unconventional. Yet her inner circle refuse to be honest with her – mostly for reasons of compassion, though her wealth and power are not irrelevant. What’s interesting about Giannoli’s film is that it poses sharp questions about the nature of art and who it’s for. Is something necessarily worthless if everyone perceives it as crap? Or is there a purity that comes with artistic expression entirely unshaped by fashion? It’s not a term that would have meant anything to Marguerite or her contemporaries, but there’s a touch of the outsider artist about her, something that Giannoli stresses by giving us the perspective of a black servant, Madelbos (Denis Mpunga), who takes Marguerite’s ambitions entirely seriously. This is sombre, artful and winningly ambiguous.