Marguerite (2016)

Sometimes, I believe, people must be allowed to live out their fantasies. There is catharsis in that. It can be used to heal and remedy. It can also, in the case of poor Marguerite Dumont, provide accidental comedy. Just look at all the musical hopefuls who travel miles to appear on American Idol just to be told by Simon Cowell that they look like the Incredible Hulk’s wife. They live out their fantasies, and people let them. Others watch merrily as they do.

Marguerite Dumont (Catherine Frot) resides within such a fantasy; she’s a wealthy aristocrat in France and a strong ambassador for the arts, particularly the opera. She holds charity events in her home, inviting some of the best singers in all the land, and marvels at their talent. Then she retreats upstairs to her garish bedroom and prepares for her own solo. Her husband Georges (André Marcon) is always late to hear her sing. This time he feigns a car breakdown. Never a good sign.

Marguerite’s delusion is that she can belt soprano notes with the grace and control of Sarah Brightman. The truth is she sounds more like a dying cat scratching a blackboard. Does she truly believe she can sing? Does she sing poorly, knowing it, hoping she will one day crack the code that unlocks an angelic voice? Or does she, like so many American Idol contestants, live inside a fantasy created by a blinding passion for the field?

These were questions I asked myself as I sat through horrid note after horrid note, waiting patiently for Marguerite to finally explain its leading lady. It does, at the end, but I didn’t buy it, because it finds a cheap exit and takes it, instead of twisting the screws and prodding deeper at an interesting character.

Marguerite Dumont was not a real person. She was created by director Xavier Giannoli out of the fibrous memories of Florence Foster Jenkins, an American socialite who lived during America’s Golden Twenties and genuinely thought she could be cast in a Mozart opera. Both women, real and fictitious, adored music, and in Marguerite’s case it is the main reason why she works as a character and the movie works as an entertainment.

Frot is endlessly charming as Marguerite, stepping lightly over a character that should rightly have a room in a mental asylum. Frot, whose gently creased face carries a distinguished pride, turns Marguerite into a sensual creature, whereby music and powerful voices elevate her own ambitions. She is such a lover of the art that we cheer for her. If Frot had played her as a pompous curmudgeon, bound by her riches, the movie would have had no beacon for the audience. When Marguerite decides to sing in front of a public audience of hundreds, we want to reach out and help her away from disaster, but at the same time we want to see what happens if we let her go.

This is a funny movie. It plays Marguerite’s handicap for a lot of laughs. Usually it’d be rude to snigger at someone’s delusion, but Marguerite almost seems to be laughing at herself, even if in secret. Strong supporting performances arrive in the form of Marcon; Denis Mpunga as the loyal servant Madelbos; and Michel Fau as the maestro Pezzini, whose one-liners and sneaky side glances are the stuff comedic gold is made of.

Christa Theret, Sylvain Dieuaide and Aubert Fenoy play a young singer and two journalists. I’m not sure what they bring to the movie, and how they see Marguerite. Sometimes they are on her side. Sometimes they mock her. Perhaps they represent the film in itself – a movie of mixed emotions and thoughts.

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