The Courier-Mail - QWeekend - - MOVIES - Mar­guerite is in cine­mas now; Florence Fos­ter Jenk­ins opens in cine­mas on Thurs­day. © The In­de­pen­dent JAMES MOT­TRAM

“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.

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