It is always funny when a character seems so oblivious to how funny he (or she) is, and French comedy film “Marguerite” gets plenty of laughs from such a premise like that. Here is a lady who is so blindingly devoted to her, uh, talent, and we cannot help but giggle or chuckle whenever she tries to do her best – or her worst, shall we say.
For Marguerite Dumont (Catherine Frot), music has been something she can be passionate about. Besides being a prominent member of the classical music club consisting of her high class friends and acquaintances, she is eager to present herself as an amateur operatic singer, and the opening sequence shows a charity event where she will perform in front of many guests including her fellow music club members.
However, anyone who has ever watched her singing performance is actually in the dread for another embarrassment as her turn is coming. Although I must admit that I am not very good at evaluating singing talent, it did not take much time for me to see how disastrous her singing ability is, and it is utterly hilarious to watch her trying to sing that famous aria from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute”. Many of her audiences try to keep their face straight as enduring the sheer awfulness of her performance which virtually strangles Mozart’s music to death, and she seems to have no idea about that while joyfully doing her performance as usual.
We see how her silly delusion has been maintained by others around her for years. Her music club members have tolerated her mainly because they do not want to embarrass one of their richest patrons. While he married her mainly for money as he frankly admits to his mistress, Georges (André Marcon) cannot tell the truth to his wife because he knows well how much that will hurt her. Madelbos (Denis Mpunga), a loyal black butler as firm and stern as Erich von Stroheim in “Sunset Boulevard” (1950), is always at her service; he dutifully shoots the photos of Marguerite in various opera costumes, and he also makes sure that she does not come across any single word of bad publicity (Fortunately, it is 1920, and they live outside Paris).
Meanwhile, Marguerite happens to draw the attention of Lucien Beaumont (Sylvain Dieuaide), a sardonic journalist who sneaks into the charity event along with his anarchist friend and then experiences something he will never forget thanks to her singing. After meeting Marguerite again later, he gets a rather mean idea of how to use her just for an artistic/ideological fun, and that leads to another catastrophic performance to behold.
Does Marguerite have any slightest idea about how she actually looks and sounds to others? The movie is often vague about that, but Catherine Frot, who received the César Award for her lovable performance early in this year, presents her character as a delightful case study to observe in addition to giving us a flawless impression of spectacularly untalented singer. Although her mind may be seriously deluded, Marguerite is a warm, likable woman with disarming earnestness, and you can see how she comes to melt the cynical heart of Lucien, who begins to like and care about a lady he once ridiculed in his sly, sarcastic review.
When Lucien takes Marguerite to a subpar opera performance, her misguided passion toward music is further boosted, and that is how Atos Pezzini (Michel Fau) comes into the picture as her vocal coach. As a fading operatic singer who really needs a new job right now, Pezzini cannot refuse the offer even though he clearly discerns that Marguerite cannot possibly be improved at any chance, and that leads to another funny moment as Pezzini deals with this impossible situation during his stay at Marguerite’s mansion. He tries as much as paid, and it looks like she is improved a bit after many training sessions, but, by George, she still can’t sing well.
Although the story unfortunately fizzles as shifting its gear into a more serious mode during its last 20 minutes, the movie still has good things to maintain its breezy charm. The director Xavier Giannoli, who wrote the screenplay with Marcia Romano, assembles colorful supporting performers around Frot, and they have each own comic moments as responding to Frot’s performance on the screen. While André Marcon is a sensible husband who has tried to live with the insanity of his wife’s musical aspiration, Michel Fau goes all the way for broad gestures, and his character’s nutty entourage certainly adds an extra fun to the movie. Denis Mpunga is sometimes poignant as a reticent man who has quietly nurtured his devotion to his mistress, and Sylvain Dieuaide is smooth in his character’s gradually changed attitude to Marguerite, though his character’s relationship with a young struggling singer played by Christa Theret feels redundant.
As mentioned at the beginning, “Marguerite” is loosely inspired by the unbelievable life story of Florence Foster Jenkins (1868 – 1944), an American socialite who drew lots of public attention for her poor singing ability. Believe or not, she actually had a public concert at the Carnegie Hall, and there are even the archival audio recordings to show you how bad she really was as a singer.
Incidentally, Jenkins’ life story is also the basis of Stephen Frears’ new film “Florence Foster Jenkins” (2016). I have not watched that movie yet (it will be released here around the end of this month), but I have already heard good words about it, and it will be interesting to see how Frears’ film is different from “Marguerite” besides being more faithfully based on their common inspiration source.