In “Marguerite,” a wealthy socialite passionately pursues success as an opera singer, clueless to her complete inability to sing.
Loosely inspired by the story of 1940s amateur soprano Florence Foster Jenkins, the French period tale invites audiences to laugh at the heroine for her folly, embrace her for her enthusiasm and feel compassion for her in her sad delusion. Writer-director Xavier Giannoli and actress Catherine Frot meet that tricky challenge with humor and humanity.
Using Jenkins as a starting point, Giannoli (“In the Beginning”) and writing collaborator Marcia Romano have created a fresh story in the form of a tragicomic fantasy set in 1920 near Paris. Frot plays Marguerite, a middle-aged heiress married to an unfaithful but caring baron, Georges Dumont (Andre Marcon).
Georges is embarrassed by, and for, his tone-deaf wife as she screeches her way through Mozart and Bellini at recitals performed for members of their amateur music club. He feigns car trouble to avoid attending her concerts. He hasn’t dared to tell Marguerite she cannot sing.
Further enabling Marguerite’s self-deception is Madelbos (Denis Mpunga), Marguerite’s driver, butler and photographer.
The film opens at a charity concert hosted by Marguerite, which a jaded young journalist named Lucien (Sylvain Dieuaide) and his anarchist pal (Aubert Fenoy) crash.
As the performer unleashes her abominable voice on an audience of snobs and phonies, Lucien finds her sincerity and zest refreshing. He writes an ambiguous review stating that Marguerite’s vocals suggest an effort to “exorcise an inner demon.” Marguerite, interpreting this as praise, befriends him.
Ejected from her social circle after she unintentionally desecrates the French national anthem at a Dadaist cabaret, Marguerite needs a new audience and begins planning a high-profile public concert.
Atos Pezzini (Michel Fau), a faded, hedonistic divo, is blackmailed into assuming the impossible task of tutoring her.
As Marguerite abandons her safety zone and experiences the big-time limelight, the film darkens into a romantic melodrama with themes of redemption and madness.
At 127 minutes, the movie could use tightening; for example, cutting an introductory passage that misleadingly spotlights a rising young singer,
And third-act events have a, well, operatic quality that Giannoli can’t quite pull off.
Still, “Marguerite” is a funny, thoughtful, moving story about art, love, passion, delusion and the sad reality that dreams and personal talents don’t always jibe. Giannoli is more interested in humanity than satire, and Frot gives Marguerite depth that outshines the pop psychology the screenplay uses to explain her behavior.
A Florence Foster Jenkins biopic, directed by Stephen Frears and starring Meryl Streep, will hit the screens soon, but don’t let the promise of that attraction prevent you from checking out “Marguerite.” It is worthy and unique.
Starring Catherine Frot, Andre Marcon, Sylvain Dieuaide, Denis Mpunga
Written and directed by Xavier Giannoli
Running time 2 hours, 7 minutes
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