As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’m going through something of a Hugh Grant rom-com phase. This particular movie, a period dramedy, strikes me as the most romantic of all the romantic comedies I’ve watched with Grant as the leading man. Yes, there’s something quite warm and lovable about this movie. I’d even call it the antithesis of La La Land. Where La La Land sparkles in its empty but aesthetically pleasing exaltations of romance, Florence Foster Jenkins hones in upon human vice but also the capacity for love in all its unconventional forms.
Grant plays St. Clair Bayfield, a failed amateur actor who is married to aspiring singer and older heiress Florence Foster Jenkins, who is portrayed by the regal Meryl Streep. Florence was previously married and from her first marriage contracted syphilis, which has weakened but failed to kill her over the last five decades of her life. At first glance, we might pick up the signs and assume that St. Clair is a gold digger. He lives a lavish life, has a mistress, and even has a separate apartment from Florence. He even enables his wife’s terrible singing, standing in as her stage manager. But the film does an excellent job of undoing our assumptions about St. Clair. Yes, he is living off of his wife’s generosity, but he also seems to genuinely care about his eccentric wife. His care for her is reflected in everything from his nicknames for her (“bunny rabbit”) to frantically paying off press and guests to give his wife positive feedback. It is an anxious and pained kind of love, but love nonetheless.
In a perverted way, Florence Foster Jenkins glorifies dreams, much like La La Land. But unlike La La Land, it’s much more self-aware. For example, we see the obvious classist divisions that enable Florence’s success as St. Clair pays the press and guests. We also see the love that fuels Florence’s dreams. The success which she collects from terrible singing is not a singular effort. It’s very much the collaborative effort of Cosmé, her piano player, and St. Clair, her philandering but fiercely loyal husband. In that sense, the film is much warmer and much more truthful in its portrayal of success whereas La La Land propels a thesis in which we must sacrifice love to achieve our dreams.