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It’s no easy task to make a crowdpleaser about a woman who spent the better part of her life doing just the opposite, but writer-director Xavier Giannoli offers up an amusingly entertaining portrait of fortune, infamy and severe melodic dysfunction in the polished French period dramedy, Marguerite.
Inspired by the tragic-comic true story of Florence Foster Jenkins — an East Coast society woman who, despite her remarkably bad voice, bankrolled a music career that ended with a lamentable sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall — this Jazz Age tale shifts the action to Paris, where the titular heroine (winningly portrayed by Catherine Frot) pays her way as a lyrical singer, inviting ridicule from many, admiration from few and deep-seated frustration from a husband who’s had to put up with his wife’s unique “talent” for decades.
Although such elements would normally yield your classic Gallic farce, Giannoli shapes them into something more ambitious, asking us to question the sincerity of Marguerite’s passion — if not her art — while gradually introducing a marriage plot where the nature of lying, and the occasional necessity for it, take center stage. That makes for plenty to pack into a movie which, nonetheless, feels stretched at nearly 130 minutes, although the lively performances and sharp technical craft make it all go down easily. After a Venice competition berth, expect strong turnouts in France and abroad — until the upcoming Meryl Streep–Stephen Frears version gets top billing next year.
Giannoli (who collaborated on the script with Marcia Romano) was driven to write the film after hearing an original recording of Jenkins performing the famous Queen of the Night aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. That song becomes the centerpiece of the first act, where we follow a young soprano (Christa Theret), music critic (Sylvain Dieuaide) and avant-garde artist (Aubrey Fenoy) as they arrive at a breathtaking chateau to attend a benefit concert given by its owner, Marguerite Dumont (a name that may have been inspired by the great Marx Brothers punching bag, Margaret Dumont).
After several opening numbers, Marguerite finally enters the scene, and her rendition of the Mozart piece is so jaw-droppingly awful, the guests don’t know whether to laugh, applaud or flee to the next room (they do all three). Frot, on the other hand, does an incredible job making the performance seem both hilarious and deeply felt: It’s hard to mock someone who so avidly believes in their calling, and throughout the rest of the film, Marguerite’s devotion to her music will be tested by the hypocrisy she’s surrounded by — a hypocrisy that her spouse, Georges (Andre Marcon), is willing to live with, especially if he can benefit from his wife’s immense fortune while keeping a mistress on the side.
“Sublimely false,” is how the critic describes Marguerite’s voice, publishing a totally unqualifiable review in a major French newspaper the next day. This convinces Marguerite to keep singing, enlisting chauffeur/right-hand man, Madelbos (Denis Mpunga), to both watch her back and document her antics through a series of tableau vivant photos used to mark the narrative’s chapter headings. The chateau concert is followed by a rowdy Dadaist show during which Marguerite unwittingly desecrates La Marseillaise, prompting her banishment from the social circles she frequents but allowing her to latch on to her next and biggest objective: a public concert in the heart of Paris.
Again, it would be easy for Giannoli to use such a setup to draw quick laughs, which he certainly does at times – especially in scenes involving Marguerite’s newly recruited voice coach (the exuberant Michel Fau), whose horror at his student’s inabilities is only matched by his own ego and greed. But it’s at this point that the plot shifts to focus on the relationship between Marguerite and Georges, and we begin to realize that the former’s pathological state of denial may also be a tactic for dealing with what is clearly a marriage of convenience, especially for Georges. In some ways, Marguerite’s unbearable shrieks are her only means to force a lousy husband to become a decent one, whether he really wants to or not. Too bad if he has to plug up his ears at the same time.
Everything builds up to the big recital, for which Marguerite has prepared a laundry list of famous arias to perform. As a filmmaker, Giannoli is no stranger to spectacle — whether via music (The Singer) or realist drama (In the Beginning) – and he pulls out all the stops during this final act, working with DP Glynn Speeckaert and production designer Martin Kurel to fabricate a Black Swan-style blowout, with Marguerite even decked out in white angel’s wings. There are some major surprises in store at this point, although the story isn’t over just yet – and somewhat overstays its welcome during subsequent scenes, even if they do make sense on a thematic level.
But the indulgent running time and imperfect side characters (we never really latch onto the trio from the opening) hardly take away from a work that convincingly toes the line between comedy and tragedy, revealing how lives fully lived often contain both at once. Whenever Frot takes the stage, we don’t know if we’re supposed to laugh or cry, and that’s precisely the point: For a movie about someone who can’t sing true, Marguerite only hits a few false notes.
Production companies: Fidelite Films, Gabriel Inc., France 3 Cinema, Sirena Films, Scope Pictures, Jouror Cinema, CN5 Productions
Cast: Catherine Frot, Andre Marcon, Michel Fau, Denis Mpunga, Christa Theret, Sylvain Dieuaide
Director: Xavier Giannoli
Screenwriter: Xavier Giannoli, in collaboration with Marcia Romano
Producers: Olivier Delbosc, Marc Missonnier
Executive producers: Christine de Jekel, Artemio Benki
Director of photography: Glynn Speeckaert
Production designer: Martin Kurel
Costume designer: Pierre-Jean Larroque
Editor: Cyril Nakache
Composer: Ronan Maillard
Casting directors: Michael Laguens, Arwa Salmanova
International sales: Memento Films International
No rating, 127 minutes
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