(SPOILER ALERT: This blog is one big spoiler for this film.)
Like most Americans, I see only 4-5 films a year in an actual movie theater. So Stephen Frears’ Florence Foster Jenkins was an odd choice for one-quarter of my annual movie budget.
An 86% Tomatometer rating not withstanding, a film about older people is so far from the Marvel Cinematic Universe as to be a spandex-free, geriatric universe all its own. Mix in opera, a mid-1940’s setting and stars with wrinkles (Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant) and I’m sitting in the dark with a medium popcorn and caffeine-free Diet Coke asking myself what I’m doing here. The answer is simple: I thought my wife would enjoy it.
This British-French biopic portrays an American heiress (Streep) who lives an illusion: her monumental singing talent exists only in her own mind. As an honest reviewer writes in the New York Sun: “[Mrs. Jenkins] has a great voice. In fact, she can sing everything except notes.”
I found the film very funny and surprisingly moving. It is the biography of an illusion: a completely false idea that takes on a life of its own. Watching Streep’s poignant handling of her oblivious character prompted me to ask what illusions I might be harboring, and how are those distinguished from faith?
Didn’t one of Mark Twain’s characters say, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” What’s the difference?
THE POWER OF ILLUSION
Florence’s love for the stage never wanes. So late in life returns to performing as a vocal soloist. Her “husband,” Mr. Bayfield, vocal coach, pianist (Simon Helger) and cult-like fan base all indulge this craving.
Streep’s performances of “Lady Francis'” solos are the highlight of the film. Singing badly well requires her impressive talent. I found myself simultaneously laughing and cringing.
But from the wreckage of twisted notes and broken phrasing emerges a brilliant sincerity. (“Wait…Florence actually means this!”) Free from exposure to criticism, she is indeed an opera virtuoso on her own terms. “People may say I can’t sing,” she states defiantly, “but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”
The power of illusion is its ability to inspire confidence beyond what our actual performance justifies. Illusion is the cure for accountability. Once cured we can define the terms of our own success because illusion effectively confuses sincerity with quality.
THE PRISONERS OF ILLUSION
Sincerity itself is not enough. Lady Florence’s professional illusion depends on a carefully cultivated personal illusion. Mr. Bayfield, himself an actor of noted mediocrity, serves as the cornerstone of a private reality within which she shelters. Little wonder Donald Collup’s documentary about Jenkin’s life is entitled, A World of Her Own.
Living in a posh hotel, practicing her songs to the incessant cheerleading of her vocal coach, little else seems to count. Mr. Bayfield works tirelessly to promote Lady Florence by day, for example, but in the evenings retreats to his apartment across town and the girlfriend (Rebecca Ferguson) who lives there, all bankrolled for by Florence.
The arrangement makes a kind of sense to her. She receives the best of Bayfield’s efforts to nurture her career and interests. In return he is able to live on her inheritance, indulge his own interest in the arts, and find his own form of refuge “It’s complicated,” Bayfield notes. No it isn’t. It’s a simple quid pro quo.
Lady Florence defines the boundary between her personal and professional ambitions as permeable, so her sequestered private life medicates her against painful intrusions.
A personal illusion is anesthesia. Mr. Bayfield, for instance, describes his criteria for admission to her concerts as, “No mockers and no scoffers!” Without this fictive family as shelter, Florence would be torn to shreds by critics defending the arts and a public that thrives on the entertainment value of mockery.
Illusions can be so powerful they define other people, even people we love, as mere tools, means to our ends. Spouses become support services, friends become audiences for our little speeches, family serves to maintain and promote our brand, and advisors only say “yes.” In return, illusion offers other people a small role in our supporting cast. The really sad part is that seems worth it to the illusionist.
THE PRICE OF ILLUSION
With the slavish support of her inner circle, the horrific quality of Lady Florence’s music is utterly obvious to everyone but her. The exception is that portion of her fan base that appreciates her singing as comedy. Her famous vocal coach enthuses: “You’ve never sounded better!” Mr. Bayfield reassures: “Yours is the truest voice I have ever heard!” Illusion makes ambiguity seem like insight.
Resting in these reassurances, Florence schedules a climactic concert at Carnegie Hall without her husband’s consent. Despite gales of laughter from the audience as the evening opens, she sings every note of her material and brings the concert to a triumphant conclusion. Her skills do the music much more harm than good, but by the finale the audience loves her unflinching commitment, her brutal authenticity.
But one reviewer destroys her on the pages of the New York Post. The shock sends Florence into a downward spiral from which she cannot recover. On her death bed, Streep dreams of herself as a young woman dressed in an angelic costume delivering a perfect solo to the adulation of an enraptured audience. Bayfield, leaning over her pallid face is unaware that, in her mind, Florence is in concert, leaving this world to a standing ovation. But then, that’s that’s where she has always been.
Illusions are so very fragile. Lady Florence falls to pieces over one newspaper article despite reading many dozens of contrived positive reviews over the years. Seeing my blind spot can be devastating, hitting like a brick through plate glass. Putting that glass back together is problematic.
THE PARSING OF ILLUSION
The biography of Florence’s illusion is the story of all our personal fictions. The film provokes me to ask how a person of faith can know the difference between that conviction and Penn and Teller’s famous “double-bullet catch” stage illusion, which I love precisely because I know it’s not actually happening.
I am a Christian pastor, and sometimes a writer, professor and conference speaker. Over time, these experiences can be desensitizing, confusing the difference between belief (which is the unseen presence of truth) and blind spot (which is the unseen absence of truth). Gradually, I can begin to operate more out of illusion (which is about me) than out of faith (which is about God and others).
Florence Foster Jenkins suggests several questions that might assist in discerning the sometimes subtle faith/illusion boundary:
1. Am I accountable to anyone or anything? Is there someone who has my permission to say, “you don’t really bring that to the table,” or, “that’s not your best work.” Is there some standard (like a sacred text) to which I hold myself? Faith seeks out this sort of correction. Illusion runs from it.
2. Do I reduce others to a supporting cast? Am I able to love and serve others for their sake rather than for my own, or do I need them only as a sort of entourage. Faith seeks to elevate and serve others. Illusion loves to use them and call it servanthood.
3. Would I self-destruct if I’m not well-received? Can I take a couple hits without being permanently derailed or lashing out viciously? Faith is resiliant becuase it grounds me in something bigger than my performance. Illusion matches my identity exactly to my idea of what I can deliver, leaving me no options when it’s not enough.
Questions like these might not save me from illusion, but perhaps they make it harder for them to capture me in the long run.
Stripped of illusion, the faith life is described by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Christians at Rome:
Romans 12:3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. (ESV)
I don’t want to wake up one day realizing I only played Carnegie Hall in my mind.