A beautiful looking and richly observed character study, Marguerite is the first of two films to be released this year inspired by the life story of Florence Foster Jenkins; a New York socialite who forged a self-funded career from singing despite being tone deaf and talentless. This French language offering, loosely based on the source material, picked up four prizes at the César awards (the French Oscars) in February, including best actress for Catherine Frot in the eponymous lead role. Her performance is spellbinding, capturing the absurdity, pathos and ultimate tragedy of a delusional individual who exists entirely within the confines of a fabricated lie.
Set in 1920’s Paris, the film opens with an elongated scene set during a chamber music recital at Marguerite’s mansion which has been organised to raise funds for orphans of the first world war. Marguerite’s persona is established during this sequence. We learn that she is an individual of wealth and status as well as an avid lover of music, who funds these recitals on the condition that she gets to perform. When Marguerite takes to the stage however, the true horror of her voice is revealed. Her performance is beyond woeful, waiters have to insert earplugs, children hide under tables, but she is rapturously received by everyone in attendance. The scene illustrates that Marguerite is oblivious to her own failings but also highlights that she is being enabled by all those around her. This provides the impetus for the remnant of the film. As Marguerite convinces herself that she is good enough to perform to paying audiences in public venues, the narrative focus shifts to the multiple characters who are entangled in the deception.
André Marcon is excellent as Marguerite’s bewildered husband Georges. Embarrassed, estranged and bemused by his wife’s behaviour, he hasn’t got the gall to tell her the truth. He fakes a car breakdown so that he doesn’t have to attend her recital and is also having an affair, albeit one which is portrayed on screen as more psychotherapeutic than sexual in nature. Despite all this he still has genuine affection for his wife and Marguerite in turn adores him. Scenes between the pair are beautifully handled and the depiction of their complex relationship is one of the strongest elements of the film. Marguerite’s militant butler Madelbos (Denis Mpunga) is another intriguing character. Protective of his employer to the point of being psychotic, he shields her from naysayers and negative reviews, even going so far as blackmailing washed up opera star Atos (Michel Fau) to be her vocal coach. Fau plays the part of Atos with impeccable comic intuition. When he hears Marguerite sing for the first time, the camera lingers on his face and provides one of the film’s most notable laugh out loud moments
There are many strong components to the film, although some characters are underdeveloped and certain sub plots not followed through adequately. A fledgeling relationship between music critic Lucien (Sylvain Dievaide) and young music graduate Hazel (Christa Théret) is given a weighty set up early on but the pay off is very weakly executed and detrimental to the film as a whole. Despite such structural flaws, there is much to admire here. Xiaver Giannoli does a fine job as director. Unlike Margurite’s voice, his film is beautifully pitched, skilfully balanced and driven by some exceptional performances, particularly by Catherine Frot as the protagonist. It will be interesting to see how Stephen Frears and Meryl Streep measure up when the biopic Florence Foster Jenkins is released next month.