Marguerite is a tasteful picture that raises interesting questions about art and who it’s for.
Somewhere in a small castle outside of 1920s Paris, Marguerite Dumont (Catherine Frot, in a César Award-winning performance) lives a life dedicated purely to her passion—music. Her home serves as a shrine to her favorite works of music and ornate costumes from her favorite operas. (She tells a local music journalist that she has well over a thousand recordings.) But more than collecting and appreciating music, she loves to perform for an audience. Marguerite will often sing at soirées for a music club that’s largely dependent on her financial support. When Marguerite sings, her passion shines through—her vulnerability is inspiring. And yet, she’s absolutely terrible.
No one seems to have the courage to tell her that she’s hopelessly off-key. In fact, Marguerite’s husband (André Marcon) and her butler (Denis Mpunga) go to great lengths to protect her from the truth. The film opens at one of these soirées, where Marguerite butchers the most famous arias from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. A young critic is at this particular event and writes up a tongue-in-cheek review where he compares her singing to exorcising a demon. Marguerite, in all of her innocence, takes this as a compliment. The critic and his avant-gardist cohort play cruel games on a deluded Marguerite. They fill her head with ideas of performing for a large crowd outside her social club. The threat of public humiliation becomes imminent, as the critic offers a chance for her to perform for a crowd of strangers at a concert hall.
Marguerite is based loosely on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York recording artist whose voice was just as miserable as Marguerite’s. In a funny bit of timing, a film on Jenkins starring Meryl Streep is set to release this May. (Though Marguerite was long in production before the Streep film, Stephen Frears’ Florence Foster Jenkins, began.) Not many people can upstage Streep, but Catherine Frot is truly fantastic here. She turns out a sensitive performance that allows you to laugh—it’s quite hilarious when she sings—while at the same time really feeling for her.
Written and directed by Xavier Giannoli, Marguerite’s greatest strength lies in its handling of the titular character. Instead of inviting the audience to laugh at Marguerite, Giannoli’s script smartly takes a higher road. Ironically, all the characters around the delusional Marguerite are eventually empowered by her courage to be honest with themselves. At the film’s heart, it’s a tragic love story between Marguerite and music—but also her complicated relationship with her enabling husband. The film starts to falter in its final act, which is too inflated for my taste and gives an explanation for Marguerite’s delusions when it’s not needed. Still, Marguerite is a tasteful picture that raises interesting questions about art and who it’s for. | Cait Lore