Sticks and Stones

A Brief Commentary & Review of


A film by Xavier Giannoli
Drama-Comedy from France- 125 min. 
Rated R - English subtitles

By John Bennison, Mountain Shadow Director

“What would you do if I sang out of tune
Would you stand up and walk out on me?
Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song
And I’ll try not to sing out of key …
Oh I get by with a little help from my friends.”
                        - John Lennon and Paul McCartney

Hollywood will soon release a bio-pic about the life of Florence Foster Jenkins from the 1940’s. Jenkins was a real life operatic devotee-turned-diva with a tin ear. The movie stars two venerable actors, Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant.  From the trailer and early reviews, Streep vamps while Grant – playing the indulgent and affectionate husband – lovingly endures. The story, simply told, may be comic fluff, but fun. 

Meanwhile, it is refreshing, if not unusual, to find a French filmmaker recasting an American story in a fictional tale that not only changes Florence’s name to Marguerite, but takes comedy to another level by leaving the viewer wincing and cringing; not sure whether to laugh, cry or just sigh. 

In real life, Florence Foster Jenkins’ recording sold like hotcakes, with such albums as the one entitled, “Murder on the High C’s.” The self-deception of her dubious talent – spurred on by those who either indulged, used or mocked her – led her to eventually book a performance at Carnegie Hall. Next morning, the newspaper critics exposed her utter lack of talent. She suffered a heart attack, and died two days later.  What was unknown at the time was that the syphilis she’d contracted from an earlier marriage had damaged her hearing.

Catherine Frot’s award-winning performance in the role of Marguerite is depicted with an entourage of those who are willing to indulge her, take advantage of her, or both. Medals, the seemingly faithful valet, tends to her frailty with a sense of faithful compassion. But his "metaphorical eye" that captures each sequence with an early vintage camera patiently waits to capture the final photo; which he dubs the "heroine's sacrifice."  Those who can only see a self-deluded fool in the character of Marguerite are blind to the innocent charm of Marguerite's world view. Lucien, a young cad, warns Marguerite to beware of rogues like he.  And -- in a Lear-like tale -- her "conflicted" husband realizes his blindness only too late.

Mountain Shadow often brings our viewers foreign films that are billed as comedies; but more often than not, our audiences are not left rolling in the aisles. The humor is often more subtle and wry, tinged with a deeper sense of sobering reality. In the same way, Marguerite might best be described as a tragi-comedy by the end of the film. 

When I was a boy, the first time I heard Hans Christian Andersen ‘s story of The Emperor’s New Clothes Ifound it to be more sad than funny. The weaver’s deceit may have exposed more than their royal subject’s penchant for arrogant or haughty self-deception.

The filmmaker of Marguerite offers us this challenging observation: “Marguerite is like all of us because we need to have illusions.” Indeed, we may live with illusions, but we can perish when delusions are exposed to the harsh light of critics.  If sticks and stones can break one’s bones, words can indeed prove more deadly.  jb