The story of a woman who sang opera even though she did not have a shred of talent is more enchanting than it sounds.
Director of Photography:
Running time: 130 minutes
In Citizen Kane, Charles Foster Kane’s second wife’s ambition of being an opera singer, despite having a terrible voice, was bankrolled by her rich husband, a newspaper tycoon and heir to a sizable fortune. The reviews were terrible, but their isolation from the rest of society served to protect her from the overwhelmingly negative response from both the public and the critics.
Marguerite, a French-Czech-Belgian co-production, provides French comedy legend Catherine Frot with a similar role – one informed by the real-life story of the wealthy but notoriously out-of-tune opera soprano Florence Foster Jenkins. Frot stars as the titular Marguerite, a French baroness whom we first encounter at a private recital in aid of First World War orphans. She is the only one who fails to recognise her attempt at channelling Mozart’s “Queen of the Night’s Aria” (Der Hölle Rache) from The Magic Flute is so crass it sounds like a cat is being strangled. The high society audience can barely restrain themselves from snickering into their perfumed sleeves.
But while many a newspaper excoriates her performance, one even running the headline “Pauvre Mozart” (Poor Mozart), a single critic, the dashing young Lucien Beaumont, lavishes her with ambiguous praise when he remarks that her voice seemed to want to expel some demon from the room. Of course, Beaumont has an ulterior motive, as we can easily guess when we see his friend, Kyrill, regale a well-to-do woman at the recital with tales of an art gallery he wants to open and inquires about the possibility of an investment.
Set between 1920 and 1921, Marguerite makes seamless transitions across time that become veritable leaps toward the end, as the baroness, with no shortage of instigation by Beaumont, moves toward an unskilled performance on a large public stage. Small moments along the way highlight her most intimate relationships, complicated by the lies people tell to spare her the pain of the truth.
It would be easy to dismiss the central character as a thinly veiled embodiment of anyone surrounded by yes-men and yes-women who merely exacerbate a toxic situation by avoiding the potentially agonising conversation that breaks the truth: This woman cannot sing to save her life.
However, such a view of the film would be overly simplistic, as Marguerite, thanks to Frot, is endearing and close to naïve but does not have a single mean bone in her body. Persistent exposure to her singing may cause some people to pine for hearing loss, but she is not hurting anyone, and telling her she is delusional and sounds worse than a broken bagpipe may wreck her life, which revolves around her love of music.
She has accumulated in excess of 1,400 partitions, some from the great masters of opera, and she seems to know the libretti by heart. But as those in the music industry are astounded to learn, such a deep knowledge of the fifth art does not preclude one from reproducing it with utter ineptitude, albeit with heart and soul.
Frot, however, is in complete control of her portrayal of the musically challenged baroness. Marguerite is serene and focused like a laser on the task at hand: Sharing her love of the opera with those around her. In this task she is loyally assisted by her butler, Madelbos, who has her best interests at heart and, considering the impressive collection of pictures he has taken of her in various poses, likely also yearns for her affection.
Director Xavier Giannoli, who presents his material with a straight face, includes the symbol of the peacock, which we never see displaying the beautiful colours of its feathers but whose screams we do hear at irregular intervals around the house (the sound is not dissimilar from the brief meow of a cat).
All the main parts are admirably depicted, and it is to Giannoli’s credit that this inherent romp is lighthearted but never turns into a circus. Unexpectedly, Marguerite’s climax is both funny and deeply affecting, as a moment of magical realism turns the spectacle into a heartfelt recognition of the purity of Dumont’s desire to be close to her husband and to sing her heart out. The balance here, as elsewhere in the film, is highly commendable.
The 127-minute film never feels like a drag; on the contrary, some characters – like Hazel, a talented young graduate from the conservatory, or the slightly mysterious Madelbos, who likes to take pictures of objects being consumed by fire and leaves an indelible imprint on the viewer – are sorely underdeveloped. Nonetheless, the effortless distinction with which the director and his leading lady present the comedic melodrama of this peculiar individual whom we cannot but pity makes for a very gratifying film.