‘Marguerite’: As singer with no talent, French star shows plenty
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I am a great basketball player. Truly, there is almost nothing I can’t do on a basketball court.
Except play basketball well.
We all lie to ourselves about something, harbor a secret belief that we’re better than we really are. How else would we get through our jobs, get through the day, get through life?
“Marguerite” takes this idea to extremes, with Catherine Frot brilliant as the title character, a rich woman living in France in the 1920s who believes she is a gifted opera singer. She is not. In fact, she is horrible, and so tone-deaf she doesn’t realize it. It would be nice to say that her love for music and her enthusiasm for singing made up for her shortcomings, but they do not.
The character is based loosely on the life of a real person, Florence Foster Jenkins, an American woman who was convinced for much of the first half of the 20th century that she was a great singer, giving concerts in front of private audiences and finally giving one in public, suffering humiliation and dying soon after. (Meryl Streep will play her in an upcoming film.)
In “Marguerite,” director and writer Xavier Giannoli changes not only the place and time, but much of the story, adding a few side plots that might have been more effective if they didn’t disappear partway through the film. No matter, though — his film looks beautiful and, thanks to Frot, soars above Marguerite’s limitations.
The film begins with an annual concert for war orphans at Marguerite’s mansion, held in front of the hypocritical members of the music club Marguerite funds. Her husband Georges (Andre Marcon), titled but dependent on his wife financially, can’t bear to watch, faking another in a seemingly endless string of automobile breakdowns. The musicians are good, as is Hazel (Christa Theret), a struggling singer, who performs first.
Also in the audience are Lucien Beaumont (Sylvain Dieuaide), a stir-the-pot critic, and Kyril Von Priest (Aubert Fenoy), his anarchist artist friend; they have snuck in to see what goes on. Finally, the main attraction: Marguerite sings, and … torture. But Lucien is captivated by the awfulness, and writes a review that could praise or damn the performance, depending on how you read it. Or who reads it — Marguerite loves it, and becomes emboldened.
Lucien and Kyril convince her to sing at a disastrous performance promoting anarchy, getting her tossed out of her own music club. But she wants more, so she decides to perform at a public concert. Her butler and fierce protector, Madelbos (Denis Mpnunga), blackmails Atos Pezzini (Michel Fau), a former opera star gone to seed, into coaching her. The scenes in which Atos attempts to get even a single decent note out of her mouth are the funniest in the movie.
But it’s not all laughs. There is real sadness, too.
Marguerite loves music and loves singing, practicing five hours a day. No one, including the philandering Georges, will tell her how bad she is. In part, it’s because of her infectious enthusiasm, but also because they all want something from her, and scheme to benefit from her badness. Her singing may be a joke to everyone else, but to Marguerite, it’s the biggest part of her life.
The film changes in tone once the actual concert commences, and the last scenes are not as effective as the rest — with the exception of one striking image of Marguerite looking into the speaker of a phonograph. Frot captures everything about the character in one image. She’s perfect.
Other elements are not, including the budding romance on the side between Lucien and Hazel that is abandoned for long stretches (as are the characters). At more than two hours, the film is also too long; it drags a bit in places. But Frot’s performance is so towering, so convincing, that it smooths out all the film’s rough edges. It’s a triumph.
Cohen Media Group presents a film written and directed by Xavier Giannoli. In French with English subtitles. Running time: 127 minutes. Rated R (for brief graphic nudity and sexual content, and a scene of drug use). Opens Friday at Landmark’s Century Centre and Renaissance Place.