DIR: Xavier Giannoli • WRI: Xavier Giannoli, Marcia Romano • PRO: Olivier Delbosc, Marc Missonnier • DOP: Glynn Speeckaert • ED: Cyril Nakache • DES: Martin Kurel • MUS: Ronan Maillard • CAST: Catherine Frot, André Marcon, Michel Fau, Christa Théret
The idea of “so bad, it’s good” has garnered growing attention during the past decade, primarily thanks to the internet. In film it’s quite common, there was Plan 9 from Outer Space or Reefer Madness, but now, every month brings a new Sharknado, or Birdemic, The Room, or Foodfight, to attention and mockery. Ironic adoration and celebration of the worst artistic efforts is at the centre of Xavier Giannoli’s sixth feature film, Marguerite, and invites the viewer to appreciate the ardour and persistence behind the absolute worst culture has to offer.
Based on the career and life of Florence Foster Jenkins, reputedly the worst operatic singer in history, Marguerite is the story of Marguerite Dumont (Catherine Frot), an eccentric Parisian socialite, who performs privately to her friends in ‘The Amadeus Club.’ For the sake of politeness and her monetary investments, everyone participates in maintaining her delusion that she is extremely talented (to understand how wrong this is, listen to Jenkins’ rendition of ‘Queen of the Night’ which is used in the film). That is, until a young critic named Lucien Beaumont (Sylvain Dieuaide) lauds Marguerite in an extremely poetic review, which inspires her to perform outside of her home and to a real audience. Despite her husband’s protest, she continues to train for her moment in a real opera house, as his fear that she will be publicly ridiculed becomes no longer a possibility but an inevitability.
Attempting to make the viewer respond positively to rhythmless, flat, off-key music is a challenge in itself and Giannoli succeeds effortlessly. At first, we’re invited to laugh and cringe at the butchering of Mozart, but, as the film progresses and more is understood about who Marguerite Dumont is, for whom music is their only joy in life, we begin to see the passion behind her terrible voice. At one point, her style of singing is described as “very personal” and, while the comment is made snidely, it’s undoubtedly true. It creates an engaging sympathetic and emotional portrait that is made possible through Catherine Frot’s remarkable performance, carrying the film through many of its flaws.
The most notable retraction in the film’s overall entertaining experience comes from its inconsistency. Giannoli tries to have his cake and eat it with Dumont’s singing, encouraging to see the beauty behind the voice but continue to maliciously relish how awful she sounds. It becomes unnecessarily cruel, particularly in the fifth act, which Giannoli refers to as a “chapter.” The gratuity of having chapters in a film such as this is exemplary of a high-brow pomposity that never seems to work. Within the final scenes of the film, the narrative elapses into a highly fictionalized conclusion that endeavours to be poetically artistic but feels hollow and meaningless.
Marguerite’s saving grace is its characters and the actors behind them. Particularly in Sylvain Dieuaide who performs with a soft, sensitive manner and whose character Giannoli clearly identifies with and encourages the viewer to do likewise. But deserving of the most credit is Denis Mpunga as Madelbos, whose relationship to Marguerite serves as the emotional centre of the story. Mpunga’s and Frot’s chemistry and the ease to which they achieve it deserves to be seen alone. They give the film its poignancy and charm, and, above all, are the reason the beauty behind Dumont’s voice can be seen. Without them the film is nothing, but because of Mpunga and Frot, Marguerite is a pleasant and emotive experience.
Marguerite is released 18th March 2016