“One month before the shooting of Marguerite, I heard about this project,” sighs French writer-director Xavier Giannoli.
“For me, it was terrible.” He’s talking about the new film by Stephen Frears, Florence Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep in the title role. Real-life American socialite Jenkins is also the subject of his film Marguerite, “an obsession [of his] for many, many years”.
Of course, he’s not the first director ever to suffer the fate of helming a movie while a rival project is surfacing.
From exploding volcanoes and earth-bound asteroids to Truman Capote and The Jungle Book, cinema’s past, present and future is littered with such occurrences.
But, for Giannoli, it was particularly galling, given he’d spent a decade on Marguerite. “I work a lot as a writer to find completely original stories. I don’t want the audience to have the feeling, ‘oh, I saw that!’”
Indeed, when he first came across Jenkins’s story, he must’ve felt sure that he was onto a winner – a unique tale of a woman, living in the 1920s, obsessed with singing opera.
Unbeknown to Jenkins, she was a terrible soprano – tone deaf, unable to keep pitch or rhythm and yet, singing in small salons or recital halls, she became popular among audiences who found her outpourings amusing (YouTube carries excerpts of her massacring Mozart’s aria “Queen of the Night”, should your ears be able to take it).
Giannoli, whose credits include 2006’s The Singer, starring Gérard Depardieu as a washed-up entertainer, discovered Jenkins’s story and transplanted it to Paris, turning Jenkins into the hugely delusional Marguerite Dumont (played by Catherine Frot), a woman surrounded by sycophants.
“I kept the most important thing, the story of this woman on stage in front of a huge audience who doesn’t know that she’s singing out of tune. It’s funny and it’s very cruel.”
If Marguerite is a film formed under dark clouds, Frears’s version, judging by the jolly-looking trailer, is going for the funny bone.
“For me now, it is two interpretations of the same character, as in opera,” says Giannoli. “Two singers can have their own interpretation, and OK, now I decide to feel like this. I hope my film will not be a problem for them – I don’t think it will because it’s a French film, not an American film. I don’t want any problems, especially for Stephen Frears, who is a great director.”
It’s not the first time Frears has been involved in such a situation. Back in 1988, he made Dangerous Liaisons just before Milos Forman directed Valmont, both ultimately adapted from Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
Films to watch in 2016
Films to watch in 2016
1/30 Hail, Caesar - 5 February
The Coen brothers' latest film might be their most ambitious yet. Telling the story of a Hollywood fixer struggling to keep A-listers in line, it has a movie within a movie, an amazing cast, and, judging by the first trailer, some luxurious visuals
2/30 Deadpool - 12 February
Comic book superhero movies have been getting slowly more self-referential and self-parodic lately, and Deadpool looks to be taking itself even less seriously than Guardians of the Galaxy or Ant-Man. It looks as though fans will finally be getting the comic book-faithful, foul-mouthed version of the character they wanted, but it remains to be seen whether Deadpool will actually be funny, or just descend into toilet humour
3/30 Zoolander No. 2 - 12 February
Zoolander's return was derailed somewhat by backlash over a trans/gender fluid character played by Benedict Cumberbatch. The long-awaited sequel will no doubt do well at the box office, but I'm not sure if the fashion industry is as fertile for satire now as it was in 2001, and the trailer relies too heavily on honouring old gags rather than creating new ones
4/30 Knight of Cups - 4 March
A new film from Terrence Malick should have been a huge cause for celebration, but Knight of Cups has been swimming in post-Cannes purgatory for months now. In March it will finally get a theatrical release. Starring Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman, it sees a man return home from New York and get sucked into the hollow hedonism of LA, fighting to extricate himself from it
5/30 Whiskey Tango Foxtrot - 4 March
Based on journalist Kim Barker’s 2011 memoir The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, this dark comedy sees Tina Fey play a foreign correspondent reporting in the Middle East during Operation Enduring Freedom, where she develops a weird relationship with a fellow journalist played by Martin Freeman
6/30 Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice - 18 March
The wind seems to have gone out of the sails of the Man of Steel series in spite of the addition of a new Batman, and there's a more palpable anticipation for Suicide Squad (which arrives later in the year)
7/30 Everybody Wants Some - 15 April
Coming off the back of multi-Oscar winner Boyhood, this Richard Linklater film looks a lot like Dazed and Confused if it was set in the 80s, albeit pitched more towards comedy
8/30 The Jungle Book - 15 April
Disney is trampling on its own hallowed ground with this live action remake. Elf and Iron Man director Jon Favreau is a fairly safe pair of hands though, and Idris Elba, Ben Kingsley, Scarlett Johansson, Lupita Nyong'o, Christopher Walken, Giancarlo Esposito and Bill Murray are all on board
9/30 Money Monster - 13 May
'Financial TV personality Lee Gates, who offers up stock advice on his hit show "Money Monster," is held hostage by a viewer, Kyle Budwell, who lost all of his money following a bad tip from Lee during his show'
10/30 Snowden - 13 May
Platoon director Oliver Stone takes on a very important and timely story. But can he make it entertaining the way The Big Short did with the financial crisis?
11/30 X-Men Apocalypse - 27 May
2016 will see a ninth X-Men film. Ninth. Every cast member you would expect will be back to collect their paychecks, which might require a crane
12/30 Finding Dory - 17 June
The Finding Nemo sequel will focus on Ellen DeGeneres' forgetful blue tang fish. It's expected to have an anti-SeaWorld message, which should make it strike a chord with parents as well as children
13/30 Independence Day: Resurgence - 24 June
Will Smith isn't in it. Moving on
14/30 The BFG - 1 July
There's still a lot of love for Roald Dahl's stories, and this one is being adapted by none other than Steven Spielberg. There hasn't been a huge amount of buzz around it but it's early days, and Mark Rylance is an interesting casting for the titular Big Friendly Giant
15/30 La La Land - 15 July
There's a lot of expectation on director Damien Chazelle's shoulders following the success of Whiplash, one of the smallest films ever to have been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. La La Land will certainly be different, a musical comedy-drama about a young pianist and an actor played by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone respectively
16/30 Ghostbusters - 15 July
This is something of a question mark. On one hand, it's landed a cast of incredibly funny actresses, but on the other, another reboot? Really? There's also thought to be a very meta all-male version in the works from the creators of Jump Street, set in the same universe as Men In Black no less
17/30 Star Trek Beyond - 22 July
If you thought Abrams' Star Trek films were bad, feast your eyes on the trailer for the next one from the director of the Fast & Furious franchise. Expect major face-palming from Trekkies in July. Hopefully the new TV show will offer something a bit less action-orientated and a bit more cerebral
18/30 Untitled fifth Bourne film - 29 July
The Bourne series completely went off the boil with Jeremy Renner as its lead, but now both Matt Damon and original director Paul Greengrass are back to steady the ship. This might well be Jason Bourne's last outing, so I hope they send him off in style
19/30 Suicide Squad - 5 August
Harley Quinn was one of the most popular Halloween costumes this year, despite the holiday falling months before the release of the film she's in. That says a lot about the hype over this comic book adaptation, which revels in the villains rather than the heroes for once and sees Jared Leto step into Heath Ledger's size 58 boots as the new Joker
20/30 Sully - 9 September
Friendly-looking dad named Chesley Sullenberger who saves a plane load of people? Tom Hanks is your guy. Clint Eastwood will direct this biopic, about an airline captain who was hailed as a national hero in the US after successfully executing an emergency water landing on the Hudson River off Manhattan
21/30 Bridget Jones’s Baby - 16 September
It's 2015 and Bridget is now pouring her soul into an iPad rather than a diary. This sequel might perfectly skewer the frustration of growing up in an increasingly youth-orientated world, or it might just serve to tarnish the originals like with Sex and the City 2
22/30 The Magnificent Seven - 23 September
I'm not convinced there's the demand for Westerns that Hollywood seems to think there is. We'll find out in September with Antoine Fuqua's remake of 1960's The Magnificent Seven. Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke are among the gang
23/30 Masterminds - 30 September
Based on the 1997 Loomis Fargo Robbery in North Carolina, this comedy comes from the man behind Napoleon Dynamite. Owen Wilson, Zach Galifianakis, Kristen Wiig and Jason Sudeikis form a strong cast, but there are no trailers to go on yet
24/30 The Girl on the Train - 7 October
That book everyone was reading on the commute inevitably makes it cinemas in October, with Emily Blunt playing Rachel Watson, an alcoholic whose husband left her for his mistress, and who witnesses a murder and starts to realize that she may have been involved in the crime
25/30 Doctor Strange - 4 November
Doctor Strange might not have been the most obvious character to take to the big screen, but by this point Marvel could make $1billion at the box office from a comic an exec once scrawled on a piece of toilet paper
26/30 Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - 18 November
J.K. Rowling makes her screenwriting debut adapting her own book here, with a film that takes place in the Harry Potter universe but is well removed from Hogwarts
27/30 Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - 16 December
Disney is releasing a Star Wars movie every year between now and 2020. This first standalone 'anthology' film centres on a Death Star heist, but may prove to just be filler while Star Wars 8 is in production
28/30 Passengers - 21 December
'A spacecraft traveling to a distant colony planet and transporting thousands of people has a malfunction in one of its sleep chambers. As a result, a single passenger is awakened 60 years early. Faced with the prospect of growing old and dying alone, he eventually decides to wake up a second passenger'
29/30 Jumanji - 25 December
Is nothing sacred? Everyone is so pissed about this remake of the Robin Williams cult hit that it will be a miracle if it escapes a critical drubbing
30/30 Silence - sometime in 2016
Martin Scorsese's next film doesn't have a mafioso or corrupt banker in sight. Liam Neeson and Andrew Garfield star, playing two Jesuit Portuguese Catholic priests who face violent persecution when they travel to Japan to seek out their mentor and spread the teachings of Christianity
Curiously, one of Giannoli’s assistants knew Forman and told Giannoli what “a disaster” it was for the Valmont director. “I remember him, putting his arm round my shoulder and saying: ‘Now, you’re going to be Frears! You are the personal little film and he’s Hollywood!’”
In the end, Frears’s “little” film triumphed – winning three Oscars from seven nominations – and Valmont was overlooked. But will Marguerite hold the same sway?
At least Giannoli is fortunate that his movie, already released in France after a successful tour on the festival circuit last autumn, has arrived first. “I can’t imagine if it had been so cruel for me, fighting for this film for many years, and suddenly there is the power of Hollywood and they’re arriving… so now I can stay calm. I’m curious to see it.”
He’s not the only one. His leading lady Frot, who has been nominated for nine César awards, winning her first for 1996’s Un air de famille, and now a second for Marguerite, felt much the same.
“Like Xavier, at first when I heard, I thought, ‘it’s embarrassing – it’s a problem’. But then, because we were first to be released, it’s OK. At the same time, I love Meryl Streep, she’s a great actor, so I’m really intrigued with what they’re going to do. It’s going to be very different. It’s going to be a biopic.”
Giannoli even met a friend of Streep’s from New York, when he took Marguerite to the Telluride Film Festival last year. “She saw my film, and I asked her, ‘do you think she knows there is another film?’.
And she said, ‘oh, yeah, she knows, but she’s so generous and so pure, she doesn’t want anything against anybody’.” The critics are a different matter, of course. “When the film comes out in France, there will be comparisons, so we’ll have to block our ears,” says Frot.
Perhaps it’s something all film-makers are forced to live with: juicy subjects, whether fictional or real, come at a premium. Oscar-winner James Marsh’s upcoming film Deep Water in a case in point.
Starring Colin Firth as amateur sailor Donald Crowhurst, it will have to contend with a rival project, Crowhurst, from fellow British film-maker Simon Rumley, starring Justin Salinger in the title role.
Another niche story with two films setting sail at the same time? You couldn’t make it up.
‘Marguerite’ is released on 18 March. ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ is released on 6 MayReuse content