Friday, August 26, 2016

Eye on Movies; "Florence Foster Jenkins" and "La Tete D'Un Homme"

Righteous Lovebirds

Whatever our vocations, few of us have a real grasp of our talents. We’re either better or worse than we think we are. Sometimes much better. Sometimes much worse.

Among those whose perception most exceeded their talent was one Florence Foster Jenkins, the titular subject of one of the best, most delightful movies now playing.

Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944) was a real-life American high-society matron of the last century. Jenkins was gripped by a fantastic delusion: that she was an opera singer. And a great opera singer at that. That she was completely tone deaf is the comic underpinning of much of this good-hearted comedy, deftly directed by the excellent Stephen Frears, who has portrayed upper class folly before in such classics as Dangerous Liaisons and The Queen.

A passionate music lover, Jenkins founded the Verdi Club in New York, in 1917, an exclusive society dedicated to "fostering a love and patronage of Grand Opera in English.” What the club mostly seemed to be though was a showcase for Jenkins’ vaunting vocal extravagances. She was no post-modern, winking ironist, nor a Jack Benny, a competent musician playing for laughs; She was as real and absolute as you can get. She couldn’t hit a note in front of her, but thanks to her inherited wealth, there was nothing to stop her in her sincerity.

That the beauty she undoubtedly heard in her own ear was not heard by anyone else daunted her not one bit. Feeding her ambitions, she was safely encircled by a coterie of dedicated and loving fans (the Verdi Club had a membership of 400, including Enrico Caruso and Cole Porter). Even her vocal coach cheerfully plays along with non-compliments like “You’ve never sounded better.” The lengths some of the characters go to both protect her from the truth and from having to actually hear her sing are hilarious and charming.

Her most loyal fan of all is her partner of over 30 years, St. Clair Bayfield, a British Shakespearean actor of limited talent, but, as the movie tells us, well aware and content with it. Played with enormous brio and loving attention by Hugh Grant, Bayfield spends most of the movie juggling three balls: running between Florence and his mistress Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson); managing Florence’s career; and, most importantly, protecting Florence from the world’s slings and arrows, from the savaging she’s doomed to face when she decides to step out of her bubble and under the eye of a wider public with her legendary 1944 Carnegie Hall debut. He wins the viewer’s heart, as well.

The third pillar in the story is her long-suffering accompanist, boyish and baffled Cosmé McMoon, played by Simon Helberg as so uncomfortable in his skin, it just may slough off. McMoon is a shaky underfed chap on whom a coat of paint would look baggy. He’s equally driven, except, unlike his patron, he seems to possess great skill as a pianist. He knows he’s risking his career ambitions, but being a musician (meaning no money), he must take the job. It’s not long before he falls under Florence’s spell.

Florence Foster Jenkins is a joy for most of its two hours (though some of the performances at the bottom of the cast list are out of tune). It pulls off the difficult balancing act of getting us to root for, and delight, in Jenkins unstoppable spirit, while never forgetting the fact that, well, she stank up the room every time she took the stage. (At one point, my wife and I both cried out, “No, please no! Don’t sing that Mozart!” She tackles the “Queen of the Night” aria so hard, I nearly called for an ambulance.)

Whatever Jenkins’ lack of pitch, director Frears and screenwriter Nicholas Martin pitch the film just right. Most crucial of all though is the acting and in this, Meryl Streep embodies Jenkins’ deluded grandeur with exuberant perfection. She fully inhabits Florence Jenkins without a wink of condescension. It’s another superb portrait in her late-career gallery of grand eccentrics (among them, Julia Child in Julie and Julia). By embracing her with such artistry (even going so far as to actually sing like Jenkins, if this article is accurate), we embrace her as well.

That Hugh Grant matches her every step away, shunning his stuttering image to play a man of unbridled dedication, is to pay the both of them the highest of compliments. The screen is theirs.


Like Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Jules Maigret of the Direction Régionale de Police Judiciaire de Paris, is one of those detectives the movies can never let go. Even after Bruno Cremer’s successful run at the character from the 1990s to 2000s, filmmakers still turn to Georges Simenon’s novels for inspiration, with Rowan Atkinson (yes, “Mr. Bean,” that’s right) the latest to take a stab at portraying the doughy determined detective.

Where Holmes is an outsider and inspired amateur, Maigret is the professional insider, a willing cog in the system. His appeal may, in part, lie in his image as the perfect government bureaucrat: persistent, pragmatic, patient, willing to cut red tape when necessary in his pursuit of truth and justice. And, unlike Holmes, he’s not overstuffed with self-regard. He’s the clerk you hope to encounter at the DMV, the guy you most want heading the investigative team should you ever be murdered.

Belgian author Georges Simenon created his legendary detective Inspector Maigret in 1931. Movie producers seized on the books almost right away, filming them one after the other as they came out. Simenon’s fourth Maigret novel La Tete d’un Homme (Head of a Man) was first filmed in 1933 by director Julien Duvivier (Pepe le Moko and Tales of Manhattan).

It’s a beautifully photographed, striking film (as seen on a DVD I checked out from the Berkeley Public Library.) The plot concerns Maigret’s (Harry Bauer) unravelling of a murder plot involving, among others, an emigrant medical student (Valery Inkjinoff), who, facing death from cancer, embraces nihilism. The plot lurches about with Maigret seeming a little too passive at several points. But the atmosphere is delightfully Parisian and the camerawork often astounding: one sequence stations an inquiring detective in front of a projection screen as it dissolves from scene to scene as he conducts his interviews.

The film may seem slight. Bauer is not a particularly memorable Maigret. But the film is a treat for fans of vintage French film and Inspector Maigret.

Copyright 2016 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield’s Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up novel will appear this Fall 2016. His contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark won the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book Festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers, The Uglies and Now Speaks the Devil (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, Scribed, and other retailers. His reviews have appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal and he recently published a two-part look at the life and career of the great film villain (and spaghetti western star) Lee Van Cleef in Filmfax. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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