A delicious update of the Emperor’s new clothes parable, Xavier Giannoli’s Marguerite exposes the well-meaning flattery of the have-nots.
Casta Divaby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Xavier Giannoli, it seems, has something of a thing for singing. After his Cécile de France and Gérard Depardieu starrer The Singer comes his four-time César winning Marguerite, examining the glorious idiosyncrasies of the Baroness Dumont, who turns a deaf ear to her inability to sing, risking ridicule and humiliation among Paris’ glitterati by taking blithely to the stage to quench an ardent passion for arias. Based on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins (also to be seen in Stephen Frears’ upcoming film with Meryl Streep), Marguerite succeeds largely due to a fantastic (and deservedly César winning) performance from Catherine Frot, who merrily massacres Mozart’s Queen Of The Night aria from The Magic Flute with a jaw-dropping selection of all the wrong notes in all the wrong places.
It’s 1920 on the outskirts of Paris. While her husband, the Baron Dumont (André Marcon), stays away, feigning the breakdown of his automobile, Marguerite (Catherine Frot) warbles for the select audience of the Amadeus Club. Aside from replacement singer Hazel (Christa Théret), journalist Lucien (Sylvain Dieuaide) and Dadaist poet Kyrill (Aubert Fenoy) who snuck in over the estate wall, all the well-heeled guests are in on the act, careful to return to the stage and applause the ungainly chirrupings of their generous benefactress. And while manservant Madelbos (Denis Mpunga) takes photographs of his leading lady in the poses of all the best operatic heroines, Lucien seduces the baroness with the words of his article, persuading her to sing outside of the safe confines of family and friends. All eagerly awaiting the fall.
Everyone, it seems, wants something. From the camera-wielding butler, filmed somewhat knowingly with gorgeous bursts of golden flash flames and deliberate zooms into the viewfinder, intending to sell his photographs for a fortune when Marguerite falls from grace or the husband who sold his aristocratic title for his wife’s fortune to the journalist on the make looking for a scandal to make it rich with or the failing-opera-singer-cum-teacher looking to pay off his debts, everybody wants something. And so they all say nothing, happily giving into Marguerite’s impossible dreams of becoming a singer while indulging in a peculiarly French politesse; their generous smiles and good breeding worthy of the Parisian salons masking bared teeth behind.
But while there’s some discourse on the ethics of filmmaking and the nature of talent (or lack thereof), which can be deferred to much like the sovereign nakedness in the Emperor’s new clothes, the most intriguing strand that runs through Marguerite is the eponymous heroine’s goodness, which seems to tame all malevolent desires. Her inability to sing is also posited as a trick to gain the attention of her husband, and for a brief moment on stage, when the Baron’s heart is filled only with a desperate love for her, she reaches every note. But it’s in this final reel, when Marguerite becomes hospitalised, and is forced by the doctor to listen to her own singing, that Xavier Giannoli’s film disrails, becoming repetitive as her delusions are medically certified, and as the film shifts up a gear towards its recycled climax.
Nevertheless, Marguerite is a joyous and deliciously understated celebration of the Roaring Twenties, with its postwar fundraising and Dadaist gatherings. It marks the break into the modern – with Hazel’s new musical forms and journalist turned novelist Lucien both succeeding thanks to Marguerite’s support. A doyenne of the Old World but a patron of the arts with a desperate passion for music, Marguerite metamorphoses into a kind of producer. Teasing performances for the attention of her husband, she’s a director with a sharp vision and wearing the venetian mask of the plague doctor, she’s a commedia dell’arte performer that ekes the humanity out of the set types around her; from her philandering husband to the bevy of wannabes on the make that surround her. A metaphor for the complex and competing ambitions of the artist, Marguerite is a delectable vision – as warm as the bright flickers of an incandescent flame.
Marguerite is released on 18th March 2015 in the UK