Marguerite

April 21, 2016
Catherine Frot in 'Marguerite' (2015)
Catherine Frot in 'Marguerite' (2015)

It’s a little surprising it has taken filmmakers so long to catch up with Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944), the New York socialite who aspired to be a great soprano but couldn’t hold a tune. The story has all the makings of a great tragicomedy, as a wealthy, kind-hearted woman is allowed to indulge her delusions on a grand scale.

Now, as often happens, two films based on Foster Jenkins have arrived at the same time. We are still a couple of weeks away from the release of the biopic by Stephen Frears, with Meryl Streep in the title role, but one can warm up with Xavier Giannoli’s Marguerite, which was one of the hits of this year’s French Film Festival.

Although Foster Jenkins is transparently the inspiration for this movie, almost everything has been fictionalised. The lead character is not a New York socialite, but a well-heeled French aristocrat of the 1920s, the Baroness Marguerite Dumont, who holds musical soirées at her chateau. (One presumes a sly reference to Margaret Dumont, who was a favourite butt of the Marx Brothers’ gags.)

These gatherings are attended by the creme of high society who are happy to sponge on the Baroness’s hospitality while enduring her appalling singing.

It is one long piece of theatre, but none of this is evident to Marguerite, who sees herself as an artist and believes that her guests are sincere in their admiration. Catherine Frot never makes a false step in her portrayal of a generous, sweet-natured woman who lives in a state of self-delusion. Yet Marguerite’s ‘admirers’ are not all spongers and sycophants. There are those such as her husband, Georges (André Marcon), and her loyal servant, Madelbos (Denis Mpunga), who encourage her fantasies because they are so protective of her.

It should also be noted that Madelbos is an imposing, almost sinister figure, (quite on a par with Erich Von Stroheim’s Max, in Sunset Boulevard) who is compiling a photographic archive of his employer’s antics for his own purposes. For the proud Baron, his wife’s musical aspirations have worn out his patience. He has begun to feel she is more child than woman. He has taken a mistress, and tries to minimise his exposure to Marguerite’s performances by faking automobile breakdowns.

Georges’s embarrassment is compounded when a young music critic, Lucien Beaumont (Sylvain Dieuaide), crashes one of the soirees, along with his Dadaistic friend, Kyrill Von Priest (Aubert Fenoy). The duo are delighted with what they hear, and Lucien pens a glowing – albeit ambiguous – review. Marguerite wishes to meet her admirer, and soon the young Bohemians are working to put the Baroness on a grander stage, or at least to tap into her largesse.

And so begins the delicate business of trying to shield Marguerite from the disastrous realisation that she can’t sing at all, while her artistic ambitions are soaring to the stars. When the iconoclastic Kyrill arranges for Marguerite to sing La Marseillaise in a club, a riot breaks out. One thinks of celebrated Parisian scandals of the period such as the early screenings of Buñuel and Dalí’s L’Age d’Or, or the opening night of Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring. Giannoli would like us to consider, at least for a moment, that Marguerite might be a true manifestation of the avant-garde.

To prepare her for the stage, Lucien finds her a teacher in Atos Pezzini (Michel Fau), a clapped-out tenor who still knows how to assume the mantle of a maestro. The scene in which Pezzini arrives at the chateau with an entourage, to give Marguerite a first lesson, is the film’s most priceless piece of comedy. One squirms in anticipation of the moment the Baroness opens her mouth to sing an opening note in either of her preferred modes – flat or screeched.

Giannoli wastes a lot of time with a pointless subplot about a young soprano named Hazel (Christa Théret), for whom Lucien conceives a passion. More significantly he undermines much of Marguerite’s charm with a protracted ending that explains more than we need to know. It is best to approach the story as a modern fairy tale in which Marguerite is both bewitched, and able to exert an enchantment on those around her. Having created such a spell a director should think twice before breaking it.

Marguerite
Directed by Xavier Giannoli,
Written by Xavier Giannoli & Marcia Romano
Starring Catherine Frot, André Marcon, Sylvain Dieuaide, Denis Mpunga, Michel Fau, Christa Théret, Aubert Fenoy
France/Czech Republic/Belgium, rated M, 129 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 23rd April, 2016.