Wednesday, March 30, 2016
An oddly moving portrait of an artist, “Marguerite” is about a famous singer who cannot sing.
Because she is wealthy and titled, 1920s French society has politely applauded Baroness Marguerite Dumont at drawing room recitals and private performances for years, while they snicker into their brocaded gloves. Thus, she has no awareness of her utter lack of talent.
In the opening sequence, director Xavier Giannoli, who co-wrote the script with Marcia Romano, shows us a talented young opera singer, Hazel (Christa Theret), who has been hired as a warm-up act for Lady Dumont’s performance. She is astonished at the pomp and circumstance, the fine musicians hired, the elaborate costumes and whatnot. Marguerite makes a grand entrance, opens her mouth, and…
How bad is she? Imagine a caterwauling ostrich… an untalented ostrich.
The filmmakers usher us into Marguerite’s cloistered world, and show us how such an elaborate delusion can sustain itself. Marguerite (Catherine Frot) is frumpy, fiftysomething, rather dim. But she loves opera more than anyone alive, collecting rare scores, lavishing her money upon artists, practicing hours every day.
The strange power of this movie is that it shows us someone so laughable, so ridiculous, and then shows us the grace inside her soul. Marguerite may not have a speck of talent, she may be vainglorious and pretentious, but there is a kind of purity to her devotion to something she will never attain.
"Perfection is not about doing a great and beautiful deed. It's doing what one does with greatness and beauty,” intones her devoted manservant, Madelbos (an excellent Denis Mpunga).
He should know, having served Marguerite for years, acting as her shield against any unkind words. Madelbos may fight against the truth, but he is not ignorant of it – he hands out wads of cotton for the servants to stuff their eyes during her practices. He’s part Svengali, part facilitator, even taking risqué photos of Marguerite costumed for famous roles.
Meanwhile, her husband Georges (André Marcon) sustains a poisonous love/hate relationship with Marguerite. He married her for her money, and is completely mortified by what her singing does to his status, but cannot bring himself to level with her.
Instead, he finds ways to be absent, physically and emotionally, from her life. This includes a temperamental sports car that tends to break down, leaving him stranded before her performances. (Assisted by a little of his own sabotage when called upon.) One senses he only bought the car as a way to excuse himself.
Sylvain Dieuaide plays Lucien Beaumont, a young writer and art critic who sneaks into Marguerite’s recital and writes a mocking review dressed up in flowery vagaries. She mistakes this for flattery and seeks him out to thank him, initiating a friendship built upon deceit that somehow flourishes into something genuine.
Michel Fau is a hoot as Pezzini, an aging peacock of an opera singer brought in to teach Marguerite and prep her for a big public recital. His expression when she begins her audition is one for the ages. Teetering upon financial ruin, he constantly wavers in the choice between retaining the Lady’s generosity or his artistic reputation.
Frot is divine in the lead role, radiating loneliness and need. She continually brings the character up to the edge of seeming realization, then backs her into the mist of lies that surrounds her like a spiritual aura. Not surprisingly, she won the French equivalent of the Oscar for her performance.
The film is an eclectic mix of seriousness and silliness – the latter including a training montage, accompanied by jumpy music, which could’ve come straight out of a “Rocky” movie.
It’s far from perfect; the movie doesn’t seem to know what to do with the Hazel character, eschewing the obvious “All About Eve” scenario, and opts to misplace her for the middle.
But “Marguerite” raises subtle, scratchy questions about the relationship between art and artist, wife and husband, patron and beneficiary. Is it better to be a successful fraud or a ridiculed true believer? Perfection can take many forms.