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Oscars Retrospective 2017: Florence Foster Jenkins

The inspirational biopic is, at this point, a subgenre riddled with cliches, tropes and tired redundancies even when compared to other formulaic cinematic genres. Why? Because it always does the same: it takes a real story, follows it loosely and cajoles it into fitting the standards and usual structure of these types of movies. And, unfortunately, Florence Foster Jenkins falls exactly into that category.

This is a paint by numbers movie. It goes exactly where you think it's going to go after watching the trailer, it brings no surprises, nor any sort of interesting thought and it sits back and relies on the performances of admittedly great actors to keep the boat afloat.

And yes, I can't deny that this is a somewhat competent movie made by a competent director, but it's otherwise completely unremarkable. It's mathematically designed to be a crowd-pleaser and this creates more problems than anything, particularly in regards to the story, as it just doesn't seem to be able to decide if it's a really funny story or a really cruel one.


This movie focuses on the last year of Florence's life; an American heiress and New York socialite that, despite having no musical talent, believes she has a gift for singing. Her husband, due to her tragic illness, indulges her and organizes a series of concerts in which he basically lies to her by buying off the audience so that she will continue to believe that she's a good singer. All of this is played as a touching story, but I couldn't help feeling like everyone was abusing her confidence just to get her money. Maybe it's just my reading of the story, but it made the whole movie really grating and upsetting.

Despite all that, today we are here to talk about the Costume Design. And, in that regard, there certainly is a great deal of work and effort put into these Designs.

CATASTROPHIC COUTURE

The costume design for the movie was created by Consolata Boyle, a long time Stephen Frears collaborator. She's the mind behind the designs of Mary Reilly (1996), Moll Flanders (1996), The Queen (2006) - which earned her her first Costume Design Academy Nomination-, Chéri (2009), The iron lady (2011), Byzantium (2012), Philomena (2013) and Testament of Youth (2014).

The main idea behind the look of Florence Foster Jenkins is to faithfully recreate the style of this very particular woman and capture her spirit in a respectful way. And that directly translates into the costume design department, which puts all its effort into correctly reflecting her sense of style and her own unique world-view.

This meant that Boyle had to pour over thousands of pictures of the real-life Jenkins and her performances in order to achieve that level of recreation without directly having to copy any specific outfit.

FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS; SHAPING HER OWN WORLD

Florence, played by the amazing Meryl Streep, is the undisputed protagonist of this movie. It's her love of music and her inability to realize how bad of a singer she is that moves the story forward and, likewise, it's her personality that defines the tone and feel of the movie.

She is a woman that chooses to live in her own manufactured little world and the movie captures that very clearly. She lives in a bubble of her own thanks to her fortune and the people around her.

The task that the costume department had to fulfill was, basically, to visually reflect both that and her personality. That was its main goal and most essential function.
You’re creating a world, and that world is a very particular one, a very heightened one. She created this world, along with Bayfield, and everybody who came into this world had to live by the rules of this world, in a way.                                                                   -Consolata Boyle, Costume Design
So, what better way to introduce her than hanging above a stage in a rather eccentric, ridiculous and over the top angel get up.


It's definitely an appropriate way to introduce such a character; because it establishes everything you need to know about her. It also happens to be one of the few designs in the movie to recreate an actual real Florence costume, which adds a patina of realism to such an out-there character introduction.


Both the extravagance of this gargantuan pair of wings and the weird-charm of the costume as a whole help lay the foundation to the character's quirkiness and lovable antics.

Also, Jenkins' real-life costume creations were all of her own design and manufacture, so the movie costumes needed to have that same self-made look, which further advances that empathy towards the character. She puts the same love and dedication to her performance costumes as she puts to her singing, even though the result, in both cases, is rather poor. It certainly establishes the fact that this is a character that tries too hard, and that makes her failures the sadder.

That home-made quality is even more noticeable on her "Valkyrie" get-up that she wears immediately after.


It's not that easy to make something look cheap and poorly done on purpose. But this movie certainly manages it. Note the bad fit of the wig and the cheap-looking platinum armor... it's all there to further set, in a visual manner, her corky disposition and enthusiasm for what she's doing.

Both these introductory costumes successfully serve a very specific function: to perfectly sets her stage persona and the tone and feel of all her later performance costumes'. They set Florence's peculiar aesthetics when performing, its home-made feel and sets the bar for what we can expect to see coming from her.

The performance costumes had a very specific aesthetic. They were overblown and a lot of her clothes she would’ve made herself or her friends made, so there was an amateurish feeling about them.                       -Consolata Boyle, Costume Design
Her performance wardrobe includes particularly eccentric approximations of a Mexican señorita, a "queen of the night" get-up, and the aforementioned "angel of inspiration" amongst others; but what binds them together is the excessive and borderline ridiculous style that's accentuated by enthusiastic accessorizing and violent gesticulation. And all of this would look out of a comedic farce were it not from the fact that the movie is only recreating a real-life story.
Pumps, furs, flowers, ruffles, elaborate hats, a plethora of costume jewelry and angel wings were all apart of Jenkins’ persona. If we can say one thing for sure, it’s that Florence Foster Jenkins’ wardrobe demanded to be looked at.                                -Consolata Boyle, Costume Design
But, if the performance costumes show her own unique personality in the most obvious and out there way, her private outfits manage to continue doing that in a much more subdued and "realistic" way.


Boyle uses the fashion of the time and decorates it to bring Florence to life. Most noticeable, it's her use of color as a nod to her strangely childish demeanor. All her clothes are in a pastel palette of soft, childlike colors: creams, pinks, lavenders, baby blues... otherwise referred to as naive pastels. And it's a great way to contextualize her whole behavior: she's stuck in a childlike mentality.

There’s an innocence about her, as well as that rather tragic backstory of her marriage and state of health. [...] She dressed the same as she had as a girl, before the various tragedies and darknesses affected her life. Her costumes were like her childhood dressing-up outfits, so everything was in very childish colors.                                                -Consolata Boyle, Costume Design
To further accentuate that innocence and childlike manner, all her costumes are accessorized heavily with furs, tons of ruffles, cute hats, flowers, feathers... and massive amounts of jewelry. The combination of all these cement the character's combination of delusion, naiveté and wealth in a really interesting way.

Also, note that all her clothes are rather out of fashion for 1944, being much more reminiscent of the fashion that she would have worn in her youth that what was currently fashionable at the time, which is a great and subtle way of reflecting the idea that she's stuck in her youth.


This serves a very clear purpose; to visualize her isolation from the outer world. She's a woman who has sealed herself into her own world of wealth and extravagance and has tuned out the "real" New York of the 1944's out of her own reality.
Jenkins’ extraordinary eccentricities and her coterie were a very particular thing; she lived and thrived in a very sealed off world. She was a supreme performer, so her clothes were gorgeously outrageous. They were high camp but with a softness so she drew people in. And she had no embarrassment about how she looked.           -Consolata Boyle, Costume Design
Another element that was essential to the creation of these designs was Florence's wide frame in real life, which certainly doesn't match up with Streep's more slender silhouette.


Because of this, to accurately capture the character's look, they created a padded suit to widen her frame and build all her costumes around it, giving her figure this very round, column-like silhouette; thus creating this particularly matronly look that is so endearing.

ARC OR NO ARC, THAT IS THE QUESTION

Despite the merits of these designs in visually creating this character, there is an insurmountable script problem that directly affects the design's ability to be truly memorable and brilliant: Florence, as a character, has no evolution throughout the movie. She begins being one way and ends being exactly the same. There's no real change inflicted on our protagonist.

And that means that the costumes can't have an evolution either, which, honestly, makes for a boring analysis. The color palette remains the same throughout the movie, and the style remains the same as well... She even begins and ends the movie in practically the same outfit.


This is clearly meant to highlight the idea of Florence as an innocent and pure character and the "innocence bubble" in which she lives. If I have any peeve about this is that the angel motif might be a little too much on the nose even for a movie like this.

But, despite how obvious of a symbolism it is, all that it does is highlight the fact that she doesn't change throughout the movie. If she starts being innocent and ends up the same... there isn't much to say there, is it? Which makes for a rather boring viewing, both at a narrative and visual level.

I don't care that the characters around her do have an arc, she's the main character and she should be the one to have an arc... that for me, it's one of the worst mistakes of this movie.

CONCLUSION

Florence Foster Jenkins is a predictable, formulaic and bland biopic that has the undeserved privilege of having really good actors that turn in pretty good performances despite the mediocre script. I do not doubt that there is a good movie to be made out of Florence Foster Jenkins' life, but this isn't the one. Sure, it can be entertaining if you're just looking to unwind, but it leaves much to be desired.

Despite this, the efforts of the Costume Department are noteworthy. There is an enormous effort put in visually defining the character through color, texture and style in order to respectfully bring to life this one-of-a-kind woman.

In the end, the lack of a narrative arc for the character crippled the ability of the costume department to take their wonderful creations to a higher level by forcing them to stay the same during the whole movie. 

It's not a completely undeserved nomination, but, from my standpoint, it isn't the best either.

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This is the third of the  Oscar Retrospective 2017! Join me next time when I'll be looking at Allied. Meanwhile, check out last year's Retrospective covering: The RevenantCinderellaThe Danish GirlCarol and Mad Max: Fury Road.

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    1. I've only read that post just now and actually there was a good movie made out of Jenkin's life. It's a French movie called Marguerite that was very critically acclaimed here. It came out in 2015, and it's very different from the American version: first of all, it is more loosely based on Jenkin's life (the action is set in France an all the characters are French) and it's absolutely a tragic movie. It doesn't try to tip toe around that fine line between comedy and tragedy.

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    2. Really? I had no idea. I'll be sure to check it out! Thanks for the tip!

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