MARGUERITE is a glorious evocation of philharmonia. Not the orchestra, but the amour fou found in the most passionate devotees of music. In a story about deception, devotion, and transcendence, the object lesson is not about talent, but rather the giddy delight in being totally immersed in the art that you love, even if it is only a substitute for the spouse whose interests lie elsewhere. Inspired by the true story of Florence Foster Jenkins, this sublime film by Xavier Giannoli.
The eponymous character (Catherine Frot) is a rich woman of a certain age inhabiting 1920’s France. She has given her love, and her fortune, to her husband (André Marcon) only to find herself gently but firmly kept at arm’s length, both literally and metaphorically. Her outlet is singing for her suburban music society, who are more than happy to feign enthusiasm for her voice in return for the use of her chateau and its amenities. Her husband is happy to pretend that his car broke down just before every performance, and to be devastated to have missed it.
In short, Marguerite is living the life of an operatic diva, with all the trappings, the fawning, and the exhilaration of performing. Into this carefully orchestrated fiction intrudes Lucien (Sylvain Dieuaide), a young, if prematurely gray, music critic and denizen of the artistic avant-garde blooming in France. Along with poet/artist pal Kyrill (Aubert Fenoy), they crash the party in search of rich patrons and free food. They find both, but the former takes a little more work than merely pocketing canapes. Lucien also finds Hazel (Christa Théret), a winsome wisp of a soprano with a silvery voice paid to be part of Marguerite’s musicale afternoon. Kyrill does not find love as Lucien may have, but he finds a muse of sorts in Marguerite, writing a review that praises the honesty of her artistic efforts without actually evaluating them in a critique that is arch, heartless, and, for Marguerite, eager for any sort of praise, irresistible.
As is the bohemian life she embraces that threatens the careful balance of illusion and reality that has grown up around her. Will the flamboyant vocal coach (Michael Fau), decked out in Chinese robes and a look of utter desolation, give it away as he puts her through paces that include opening her pelvis and crushing her with books? Is Lucien actually coming to admire Marguerite for her determination and passion? And what will happen when Marguerite sings for an audience that is not hand-picked and carefully prepared for what they will hear?
Frot is brilliant. And so is the film. We first see Marguerite through Hazel’s eyes, as the girl arrives at Marguerite’s benefit for war orphans in a disheveled state and out of breath by her walk from the train station, then bowled over by the opulence of the occasion, and by the disdain of Madelbos (Denis M’Punga), the imposing and laconic butler who finds the state of Hazel’s shoes unforgivable. Her conversation with Lucien conveys the mystery of Marguerite to the world outside this small bubble of security, and of the shattering reviews of which Lucien is capable. Around them swirls elegant ennui, dressed to the nines, politely listening, as we do, to the preliminary performances before Marguerite makes her entrance. When she does, it is after glimpses through half-opened doors, a peacock paraded through the halls, and soothing murmurs from Madelbos whose actual meaning will shortly be revealed. When the sui-Diva enters the room, it is an entrance worthy of Bernhardt, and when she begins to sing, the scene is one of infinite fascination. As the woman before them sings, palpably joyful as she tortures trills and circles the pitch without ever coming close, Hazel and Lucien’s shocked and carefully controlled bemusement is a perfect contrast to the careful smiles of the rest of the audience, and to the Madelbros’ sharp eyes, vigilant to anything that might shatter the illusion.
As for Frot, she makes Marguerite anything but the silly woman of trite storytelling. When someone comments on the overwhelming loneliness in Marguerite’s eyes, it’s mere confirmation. We’ve already seen that and so much more. This is a woman who has thrown herself into her art, surrounded herself with discarded operatic sets, dressing up in costumes purchased from companies, and posing for endless photos, taken by the faithful Madelbos, as opera’s greatest heroines. Yet it’s not, ironically, in pursuit of illusion, but rather in pursuit of her husband’s attention. She is in her own way, a more compelling tragic heroine than any to be found in the operatic canon. She is, in fact, so compelling, that the earsplitting caterwauling that erupts from her takes on a quality of grotesque beauty, though one that requires the earplugs handed out wordlessly by Madelbros to the household staff. Single-minded, determined, but Frot’s Marguerite inspires not irritation, even in the throes of her full-throated aural assault. She is a fragile creature that inspires compassion, but not pity, affection, even from her distant husband, not cruelty. Frot can even make us wonder how much Marguerite understands about her vocal limitations, how much is self-deception and how much is unwillingness to let her only lifeline to happiness slip away, while Giannoli makes us ponder the cui bono of keeping this illusion alive. Is there something in us that, on a deeply fundamental level, requires something more than mere reality? And is it a coincidence that a character visits an opium den at one point?
MARGUERITE is a lush fable, sublimely realized as a tragic comedy. An emotional thriller, a soufflé of a farce, and a profound consideration of the fathomless yearnings of the human heart.