HITTING THE RIGHT NOTE
“One month before the shooting of
Marguerite, I heard about this project,” sighs French writer-director Xavier Giannoli. “For me, it was terrible.” Giannoli is talking about the latest film by Stephen Frears, Florence
Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep and opening here on Thursday.
Real-life American socialite Jenkins is also the subject of Giannoli’s film, Marguerite (in cinemas now), “an obsession (of his) for many, many years”. Of course, he’s not the first director to suffer the fate of helming a movie while a rival project is surfacing. From volcanoes and earthbound asteroids to Truman Capote and The
Jungle Book, cinema is littered with such occurrences. But, for Giannoli, it was particularly galling, given he’d spent a decade on Marguerite.
“I work a lot as a writer to find completely original stories. I don’t want the audience to have the feeling, ‘oh, I saw that!’” he laments.
Indeed, when he first came across Jenkins’ story, he must have felt sure
he was on to a winner – a unique tale of a woman living in the 1920s, obsessed with singing opera. She was a terrible soprano – tone deaf, unable to keep pitch or rhythm and yet she became popular among audiences who found her outpourings amusing. (Search YouTube for excerpts of her massacre of Mozart’s aria Queen of the Night).
Giannoli transplanted the story to Paris, turning Jenkins into the hugely delusional Marguerite Dumont (Catherine Frot), a woman surrounded by sycophants.
“I kept the most important thing, the story of this woman on stage in front of a huge audience who doesn’t know that she’s singing out of tune. It’s funny and it’s very cruel.”
If Marguerite is a film formed under dark clouds, Frears’ version, judging by the jolly-looking trailer, is going for the funny bone.
“For me now, it is two interpretations of the same character, as in opera,” says Giannoli. “Two singers can have their own interpretation, and OK, now I decide to feel like this. I hope my film will not be a problem for them. I don’t think it will, because it’s a French film, not an American film. I don’t want any problems, especially for Stephen Frears, who is a great director.”
It’s not the first time Frears has been involved in such a situation. Back in 1988, he made Dangerous
Liaisons just before Milos Forman directed Valmont, both ultimately adapted from Choderlos de Laclos’s 1782 novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
Curiously, one of Giannoli’s assistants knew Forman and told Giannoli what “a disaster” it was for the Val
mont director. “I remember him, putting his arm round my shoulder and saying: ‘ Now, you’re going to be Frears! You are the personal little film and he’s Hollywood!’”
In the end, Frears’ “little” film triumphed – winning three Oscars. But will Marguerite hold the same sway? Giannoli is fortunate his movie, already out in France after a successful tour on the festival circuit during Europe’s last autumn, has arrived first.
“I can’t imagine, if it had been so cruel for me (not to release first) after fighting for this film for many years. And suddenly there is the power of Hollywood … so now I can stay calm. I’m curious to see it.” James Marsh’s upcoming Deep
Water has a similar history. Starring Colin Firth as amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst, it will contend with rival project Crowhurst. Another niche story with two films setting sail at the same time? You couldn’t make it up.