Film Review: Marguerite

Magnificent and horrific fact-inspired portrait of a rich, absurdly untalented yet determined 1920s Parisian who tries to buy acceptance as an opera singer.
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Marguerite has it many ways: fanciful, seductive, touching and even repugnant, especially when the curiously appealing heroine cluelessly raises her wretched voice in song. While serious music fans will wince, serious film fans will succumb to this surprising achievement in originality and eccentricity that may remind some of Martin Scorsese’s brave and arty period detour into new genre territory and early 20th-century Paris with Hugo.

Similarly, Xavier Giannoli’s tonic lingers long after the film ends. Viewers may also spot the significant influences of Sunset Boulevard even beyond a heroine intoxicated by stardom and the manservant who furthers her fantasy.

At Marguerite’s lavishly decorated center is lovable, laughable, obscenely wealthy anti-heroine Marguerite Dumont (a wonderful Catherine Frot, in her César-winning role) who blindly fancies herself a great opera singer in the making. Powering her manic drive are loyal manservant Madelbos (Denis Mpunga), an iteration of Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond’s fantasy-facilitator Max, and Marguerite’s dull, car-crazy husband Georges (André Marcon), apparently unemployed but riding the money train while leaving his wife to her foolish dreams and ambition.

As she climbs the ladder toward the fame and acceptance she craves, Marguerite, now patroness of the snotty Amadeus Club, hosts the choral society’s charity benefit for orphans at her huge, memorabilia-cluttered mansion and estate near Paris. Two foppish young crashers arrive with mischief on their minds: Lucien (Sylvain Dieuaide) is a dubious journalist and his broke pal Kyril (Aubert Fenoy), moving in and out of a phony accent, is a dabbler in anarchy, writing and partying.

The charity event provides some fine music, most notably from gifted young vocal student Hazel (Christa Théret), who attracts light interest but no more from the two dandies. Their focus is Marguerite, who is given time to sing an operatic piece that is beyond atrocious because of her inability to stay in tune and hear her own inadequacy. But, for the dandies, this is another kind of music to their ears.

Setting a scheme in motion, Lucien subsequently writes a rave review of her performance for a newspaper, and Marguerite, showing the critic’s praise to her staff, is over the moon and more fired up than ever to find public performance opportunities beyond her mansion. Opportunity instantly knocks by way of Kyril, who, with Lucien, suggests a public event where she’ll headline. This turns out to be an anarchists’ happening where Marguerite’s awful rendition of “La Marseillaise” gets her booted from the choral society.

It’s clear to everyone that her singing stinks, but, like the emperor without clothes, Marguerite without voice is no problem: So much money and self-denial afford her immunity to the harsh reality of a hopeless performing career that fawning enablers around her distort as hopeful.

An outsized, flamboyant enabler arrives by way of the pompous, very fading opera star Pezzini (Michel Fau), outrageous as a personality and flamboyantly out of the closet when he shouldn’t be. But, desperate for a buck, he takes on Marguerite as a student.

Her journey eventually moves on to a solo gig on the stage of a great opera house before taking some startling turns. Tension in Marguerite hangs on a few questions: Fame is stubbornly possible in her star-crossed eyes, but what, if anything, will finally open them to the truth? And is her serious affliction a matter of deep denial or certifiable mental illness? (The character is inspired by American socialite Florence Foster Jenkins, played by Meryl Streep in an upcoming Stephen Frears film.)

All unfolds in magnificent settings that evoke an era and dazzle the eyes (the film also took César awards for set decoration, costumes and sound). And when Marguerite isn’t singing, the film provides wonderful sounds for classical-music fans.

Thanks mainly to Frot’s remarkable performance as the determined and maybe demented would-be diva, Marguerite will enchant quality-seeking viewers appreciative of originality, spectacle and serious music. Director Giannoli gives it great pacing and balance, with many an operatic flourish, even up to the final image that will have opera fans nod with recognition.

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