Florence Foster Jenkins: Enabling Pride

I’m here to say something controversial: Florence Foster Jenkins is a storytelling marvel, but it’s also a moral disaster.

It’s hard to deny that the film is Oscar bait, and it’ll be successful in that endeavor, I suspect.  Meryl Streep is Florence Foster Jenkins, a wealthy socialite with an undying love for opera music, who, along with her husband (Hugh Grant), deeply believe in and contribute to music in their personal lives and the community.  Jenkins also happens to think she can sing.  She can’t.

This isn’t a problem until she becomes sure that she should go back to the stage and perform.  She gets a pianist and works more with her vocal coach, all with the unwavering support of her husband.

Sort of.

You see, in accordance with the story of the true Florence Foster Jenkins, she contracted syphilis from her first husband years ago.  St. Clair Bayfield, her current husband, appears to be entirely supportive of her.  Indeed, in the ways that matter, he insists, he is devoted to her.  But he also has a girlfriend that he lives with, an arrangement that he says is not a problem because “she understands that there are different kinds of love.”  The message of this moment, the effect of which pervades the film, is clear: if your spouse is unavailable for you sexually, it’s totally fine to hook up with someone else (which we briefly see the aftermath of, with sensitive parts obscured).  In fact, the film wants the viewers to ultimately feel sorry for St. Clair when this relationship hits rocky times, as though we can somehow cheer for both St. Clair’s wife and his mistress.

But the film’s moral blunders don’t end there.  In fact, they start at the very beginning, with the premise itself.  The fact of the matter is that everyone around Florence knows very well how bad she is at singing.  Her vocal coach asks to avoid credit for being her coach, citing the possible jealousy of his other students if they were to know how much time he was spending with her, a lie that’s even more transparent than it sounds.  St. Clair himself creates a bubble around Florence, keeping her from seeing bad reviews, and screening audience members based on their tastes.

Why is this a problem?  The answer to that question is, ironically, in the film itself.  One of the music critics tells St. Clair that Florence’s performance is “a fantastic display of egotism.”  How right he is.  The film justifies lying to a woman her entire life about her talents and abilities as though it were ultimately helping her enjoy life.  But it isn’t.  She’s enjoying a lie.  Coddling her and boosting her pride is not, in fact, virtuous at all.  Instead, it is rather despicable.

I can’t deny that there are marvelous performances in this film.  This is the most fun I’ve ever seen Meryl Streep have on film, and that’s only increased when you know that in reality she can sing incredibly well.  Hugh Grant is great as well, and the atmosphere that the film creates, with Florence’s boisterous performances and lavish costumes, only adds to the film’s charm.  Florence does remind us to take life a little less seriously, and to be willing to truly live in the face of mortality, which is commendable.  But these commendable and enjoyable elements do not erase the backbone of the film’s content, which is a premise built on pride, deception, and selfishness.

When Scripture speaks of the seven things the Lord hates in Proverbs 6, the first two are a proud look and a lying tongue.  The beatitudes of Matthew 5, by comparison, emphasize humility out of the gate with “blessed are the poor in spirit.”  Story is a powerful thing, but it ought not be used to justify grandiose displays of egotism, even if it is used to teach other things that might be valuable on some level.  To be frank, the positive messages of this film are just not worth the garbage that you have to wade through to get to it.  It may be an Oscar contender, but that doesn’t mean it should a contender for our attention, as well.

Rating: 5/10.

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