If there’s one thing French film-makers are good at, it’s getting you to feel sympathetically towards a main character. It’s certainly the case with Xavier Giannoli’s new film Marguerite, which – with help from a fantastic central performance from Catherine Frot – has you firmly on the side of its seemingly ridiculous aspiring opera singer of a protagonist. Loosely based on the real-life story of Florence Foster Jenkins – who will be the subject of another, potentially more true-to-life, biopic starring Meryl Streep shortly – Marguerite is a story about ambition against all odds. Although its scope is not as wide, Marguerite has a similar feel to the film that won Marion Cotillard an Oscar – La Vie En Rose. The major difference is that Edith Piaf was a wonderful singer, whereas Baroness Marguerite Dumont? Not so much.
Xavier Giannoli’s cast and crew take us on a diverting journey into the depths of 1920s high society in France, complete with over-the-top displays of wealth and a great deal of scorn poured on those who didn’t fit in. Marguerite is desperate to join the ranks of her favourite opera singers, going so far as to buy lavish costumes and dress up as famous characters from different operas so that she can pretend she has played them on stage. All the while, everyone around her goes out of their way to cover up the fact that she can’t sing in the slightest, hiding negative reviews of her concerts and encouraging her delusions for their own amusement. Initially it’s not clear whether we are meant to sympathise with Marguerite and her quest to become famous, and equally unclear as to whether her friends and family are being cruel or kind in sparing her the terrible truth.
As the film progresses, comedy (it’s pretty difficult not to laugh along with the audience at Marguerite’s hopelessly off-key warbling) is overlaid with more and more tragedy – we realise how lonely the baroness is, and see people taking advantage of her gullibility and need to be loved. She is joined by a retinue of colourful characters, including initially reluctant teacher Atos Pezzini (Michel Fau) – whose own career is on the rocks – a bearded lady (Sophia Leboutte) and a pair of wannabe revolutionaries (Sylvain Dieuaide and Aubert Fenoy). Sticking with her the whole way is manservant Madelbos (Denis Mpunga), who may have an agenda of his own. In the face of this motley crew, Marguerite’s husband (André Marcon) stands no chance of persuading her to give up her dreams of stardom, and we begin to wonder if he’ll ever pluck up the courage to reveal the truth to his wife.
This film is strikingly beautiful, particularly when scenes take place in the Dumont household, and also would be quite easy to follow for audience members who don’t know much French. Catherine Frot does a magnificent job (she won a César, the French equivalent of an Oscar, for her efforts in this film) and turns what could have been a caricature into a tragic figure we really root for, even in her maddest moments. I was engaged with this film from start to finish, and it contains – as you might expect – some amazing music, although a lot of it is spoiled when Marguerite sings along.
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