Celebrating the absurd

Xavier Giannoli on an embellished peacock, Marguerite and finding truth through fiction.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Xavier Giannoli on the lie of Charlie Chaplin: "Everything is true in the Dada performance."
Xavier Giannoli on the lie of Charlie Chaplin: "Everything is true in the Dada performance." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Tristan Tzara, Margaret Dumont and Groucho Marx, Robert Redford as Denys Finch Hatton in Sydney Pollack's Out Of Africa by Karen Blixen, Salieri and Mozart in Milos Forman's Amadeus, and Caruso the peacock helped to compose Xavier Giannoli's Marguerite, starring Catherine Frot with André Marcon, Aubert Fenoy, Michel Fau, Denis Mpunga, Sylvain Dieuaide and Christa Théret.

Meryl Streep in Stephen Frears' Florence Foster Jenkins, the next Steven Spielberg, Jeff Nichols, Midnight Special in Paris, Broadway Danny Rose, Woody Allen and Danny Kaye in Carnegie Deli and Carnegie Hall in New York excited the director during our conversation.

Hazel (Christa Théret) singing with Nedda (Petra Nesvacilová)
Hazel (Christa Théret) singing with Nedda (Petra Nesvacilová)

Anne-Katrin Titze: When did you first hear of Florence Foster Jenkins?

Xavier Giannoli: 15 years ago on the radio. I heard this voice and it was very funny. I felt embarrassed too, immediately. The guy on the radio said that she sang in Carnegie Hall. It's very strange, Cohen Media got me a hotel that is very close to Carnegie Hall! And there was another coincidence. It moved me, last night, I was almost crying. I was walking out of the hotel and suddenly I see the Carnegie Deli. It's the Broadway Danny Rose restaurant! The film by Woody Allen.

AKT: I know, they have a sandwich named after him.

XG: I am obsessed with Broadway Danny Rose! Talking of tenderness and cruelty! I was not expecting that the place still existed.

AKT: Actually, three years ago, I think, the daughter of Danny Kaye launched the Danny Kaye sandwich there in honour of her father. I loved the peacock sounds in your movie.

Catherine Frot as Marguerite: "She wants to feel her husband because she is completely alone."
Catherine Frot as Marguerite: "She wants to feel her husband because she is completely alone."

XG: I hate this animal. It's the most stupid and violent and a nightmare for a director. A chicken that's like a dog!

AKT: It followed you around?

XG: No, you know, at the beginning we didn't have a peacock with a big train. So it's a false one and the woman carrying the peacock was carrying the train.

AKT: It's a false train?

XG: Yeah. And Catherine [Frot] was so afraid because the peacock was stabbing with its beak. I shot the film in Prague and everyone has peacocks in the garden. What's funny is the voice, of course, and the name of the peacock is Caruso.

AKT: It sounds a bit like a cat. I remember my grandmother telling me not to pick up peacock feathers and bring them inside because they're bad luck. Do you know anything about that?

XG: I know. Someone told me. But it's not true.

Critic Lucien Beaumont (Sylvain Dieuaide) Dadaist Kyrill Von Priest (Aubert Fenoy)
Critic Lucien Beaumont (Sylvain Dieuaide) Dadaist Kyrill Von Priest (Aubert Fenoy)

AKT: No, but you put a feather on her head. Kyrill von Priest [Aubert Fenoy] with a "fake German accent"…

XG: There is a real character. It's Tristan Tzara, the Dadaist. Do you know him?

AKT: I do.

XG: That's why he has the black hair like this and the monocle. That's why he has a Romanian accent. It's a tribute to Dada. It's the theatre of the absurd.

AKT: Did Chaplin ever hear Florence Foster Jenkins?

XG: No. Everything is true in the Dada performance. These are the true lines of Tristan Tzara. In Paris during the Twenties to have publicity, they were always lying. The Chaplin idea was true. They were saying, "Chaplin will be with us." So there were a lot of people in the theater but Chaplin was not there.

AKT: The husband [Georges Dumont portrayed by André Marcon] in your film, is he invented?

XG: He is not in the real story.

Marguerite's husband Georges Dumont (André Marcon): "When he wants to rescue her, it's too late."
Marguerite's husband Georges Dumont (André Marcon): "When he wants to rescue her, it's too late."

AKT: Their relationship is horrible beyond belief. She wants him to come so desperately to every one of her performances and he so cowardly avoids her.

XG: I hope I'm not rude when I'm saying this. You say, "she wants him to come." Thinking about sexuality, they are not making love anymore. You can understand that in the film. When she is singing, I was telling Catherine, she is a woman who wants to come. She wants to feel her husband because she is completely alone. In her voice you can hear that.

AKT: She has white wings - he has his fur coat. They belong to different species?

XG: The coat for me was something about an animal. Like a bear. There is the picture of a bear in the film. What is cruel is that he falls in love too late. When he wants to rescue her, it's too late.

AKT: What's next for you?

Groucho Marx with Margaret Dumont: "The real Florence Foster Jenkins looked like Margaret Dumont."
Groucho Marx with Margaret Dumont: "The real Florence Foster Jenkins looked like Margaret Dumont."

XG: I'm trying to write a film. It's the story of a war journalist and suddenly he is supposed to make an investigation on a supernatural fact. He is a man who wants proof all the time. I am always dealing with the same problematic - what is true, what is a lie.

AKT: Speaking of supernatural, I spoke with Jeff Nichols and Michael Shannon about their latest collaboration, Midnight Special. A great film.

XG: Jeff Nichols is the guy of Take Shelter?

AKT: Yes, and Mud.

XG: How is the new film?

AKT: Fantastic.

XG: Because in Paris there are posters on which is written - "We found the new Spielberg". When I left Paris, these were the posters.

AKT: Meryl Streep can also be seen playing Florence Foster Jenkins soon.

Marguerite poster at The Paris Theatre
Marguerite poster at The Paris Theatre Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

XG: In three months in the Stephen Frears film. It's a very classical biopic and I definitely did not want to make a biopic. I was listening to the radio about Karen Blixen and they were talking about the character played by Robert Redford in Out Of Africa. [Denys] Finch Hatton was gay. Salieri and Mozart did not work together but Amadeus is a f…ing good film. I took some pieces of the real story but after that I feel that a fiction is the best way to touch the heart.

AKT: Last question. Is your protagonist named after the Marx Brothers' sidekick?

XG: Of course! I'm happy you noticed that. When I was writing, a friend of mine gave me a picture of Margaret Dumont and Groucho Marx drinking a coke with two straws. And my friend told me, "This time you're going to write a comedy."

The real Florence Foster Jenkins looked like Margaret Dumont. I've read that at the end of her life, Margaret Dumont, the real one, did not know that the Marx Brothers were lying to her. It was so funny how that relates to Florence Foster Jenkins. So, of course, the name was taken from the Marx Brothers.

Read what Xavier Giannoli had to say on Jean Renoir's The Rules Of The Game, John Huston's The Man Who Would Be King, Erich von Stroheim in Sunset Boulevard, Marguerite, obsession and eating only white food.

Marguerite is in theatres in the US and the UK.

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