Directed by: Xavier Giannoli
Starring: Catherine Frot, André Marcon, Michel Fau
When confronted with the sight of a decent person failing badly at the only thing that matters to them, the best and worst of human nature is revealed. Some feel terrible and go out of their way to help, others revel in the ridicule. Marguerite Dumont, based on the American socialite and abhorrently bad opera singer Florence Foster Jenkins (there’s a US film of Jenkins life starring Meryl Streep in the works at the moment), has both around her in this entertaining period piece that hits more high notes than Marguerite thanks to Catherine Frot’s committed lead performance.
Xavier Giannoli’s sixth feature moves the action from Pennsylvania to Paris, condensing it into the years immediately after the end of World War One. Starting with ear-splitting performances for a small group of aristocratic musical friends, there’s a gradual build towards big stage extravaganza, complete with the famous angel wings associated with Jenkins.For all the impeccable period design, and it really is of the highest quality, especially the costumes, Marguerite isn’t a staid-biopic rooted in a different time. As much as Frot’s character is based on Jenkins’, she’s equally any number of enthusiastically terrible reality TV contestants who genuinely believe they have what it takes. The difference for Marguerite is that she manages to achieve a degree of fame despite a complete lack of ability in her chosen field. In a way, it’s significantly more impressive than merely being good. How many people who are truly terrible ever receive public attention? It’s certainly brave as her conflicted husband Georges (André Marcon) remarks at one point.
He, like many around her, wants to tell the truth without ever finding the words. Others offer encouragement in the hope of personal advancement or simply for kicks. Marguerite stands apart from their scheming, not entirely guileless, and certainly not aware of her own musical shortcomings. She plows ahead regardless, charming Sylvain Dieuaide’s initially cynical critic Lucien, and even drawing her husband back in, a man who starts the film so ashamed he manufactures motoring mishaps to avoid performances.
Swinging between tragedy and comedy, a lot hinges on Frot’s performance. Singing with comic gusto, she murders every note while still managing to make Marguerite’s eccentricities infectiously endearing. Injecting enough anxiety to suggest she’s not a complete fool, even if a giant blind spot covers anything to do with her musical talents, she avoids creating a pantomime buffoon.It helps that the film leaves her room to breathe, which is not a surprise given Giannoli co-wrote the screenplay as well. On the surface, picking an infamous American singing disaster for his subject matter might not seem immediately obvious, but it’s in keeping with the themes running throughout his career. He’s already tackled unexpected fame in Superstar (2012), the idea of an amateur fraudulently taking on a professional role in In the Beginning (2009) and a musical lead in The Singer (2006).
Unfortunately, the usual biopic problems, even in a semi-fictional outing such as this, surface. Only ever able to present a snapshot of a life, Giannoli picks up with Marguerite after she’s already made the decision to perform, devoting too little time to the motivations that pushed her onto a stage in the first place. A little too in love with such an enjoyably ridiculous centrepiece, everyone around her is also left to wither from neglect. Lucien’s romance, her loyal servant Madelbos’ (Denis Mpunga) behaviour, and even her husband’s wavering devotions are forced into the shadows.
In Marguerite, there is only space for one person in the spotlight. Thanks to Frot’s vibrant turn, and Giannoli’s innate understanding of his character, it’s an entertaining tragi-comedy that proves a little too frivolous to manage the darker moments. But when she opens her mouth, it’s hard not to listen.