At the opening of Xavier Giannoli’s “Marguerite,” set in Paris in 1921, a fabulously wealthy woman, Marguerite Dumont (Catherine Frot), has invited a galaxy of moneyed music lovers to her château to hear her croon arias. She swans into the spacious salon and, accompanied by a small ensemble, begins to sing the notoriously difficult “Queen of the Night” aria from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” We are anticipating a masterly rendition by this coloratura soprano but instead her vocalizing is earsplittingly off-key. Marguerite is a tone-deaf diva, and yet no one has the nerve, or the compassion, to tell her the truth.
This might sound like the setup for a broad comedy, and some of “Marguerite” is indeed comic. (It’s no accident that Marguerite’s name recalls Margaret Dumont, the Marx Brothers’ dowager patsy.) But Giannoli is after something larger than laughs. Marguerite’s voice is so screechily discordant that it is actually painful to listen to, but she is deeply passionate about her singing and her love for opera. You can laugh at her, but the film doesn’t encourage you to do so. Giannoli, with his co-screenwriter Marcia Romano, is asking us to take Marguerite’s passion as a value in itself. She may be talentless, with no capacity to hear how she actually sounds, but she has the same ardor as the great singers she so admires.
This is potentially tenuous thematic territory. If a passionate no-talent is “following her dream,” does this mean we are required to follow alongside her? What I admire in any art is, well, the art – not the passion that may (or may not) have gone into it. But, in its own sly way, “Marguerite” is standing up for the spirit of art, if not the letter. It’s saying that Marguerite is transported by Mozart in the same way that we are, and that elation, if not her singing, is worth celebrating. (Marguerite is loosely based on a real-life American society woman, Florence Foster Jenkins, whose life is being made into a movie starring Meryl Streep.)
I don’t mean to imply that “Marguerite” is some sort of acted-out philosophical tract. What grounds the movie (which is overlong at 127 minutes) is that, in essence, it is a love story, not only between Marguerite and her music but also between her and her husband, Georges (André Marcon), a philanderer with a mistress and a deep disdain for his wife’s operatic forays (if not her wealth). It becomes clear soon enough that Marguerite, in her delusion, sings because she hopes it will make Georges love her.
Georges may seem like a heel at first, but the beauty of Marcon’s performance is that it allows us to see the convoluted love Georges holds for Marguerite. He may abhor her singing, but he cannot bear to see her humiliated, and staunchly defends her. When a provocative music critic (Sylvain Dieuaide) and his Dadaist artist friend (Aubert Fenoy) crash the soiree and tout her in the press as a genius, Marguerite sets her sights on a major Paris recital. Georges knows the ridicule that awaits, and his vacillation between allowing her to fulfill her dream and telling her the truth about her talent rends him. His pity for her has a poignancy that lifts it above mere pathos.
Frot, who looks like a cross between Anaïs Nin and Lillian Gish, makes believable Marguerite’s illusionary ambition. She makes us understand how someone could be so deeply captivated by one’s own passion that all reason ceases to exist.
Marguerite has her enablers, none more so than her loyal chauffeur, Madelbos (Denis Mpunga), who carefully shields her from the damages of a hostile public. When a voice coach, Atos Pezzini (the marvelous Michel Fau), is hired to prepare Marguerite for her big night, he must first reckon with Madelbos, who threatens blackmail if he doesn’t go along with the charade.
Pezzini is a terrific comic creation: an arrogant, money-grubbing divo who, by encouraging Marguerite, must fight every fiber of his being. And yet even here, Giannoli doesn’t aim strictly for laughs. We can see how Pezzini, despite his opéra bouffe trappings, deeply loves this music, too. For him, these grand operatic arias serve as vehicles for personal transcendence, as they also do for Marguerite. Onstage, if not in real life, she achieves her own best vision of herself. Grade: B+ (Rated R for brief graphic nudity and sexual content, and a scene of drug use.)