Belle Ruin

Xavier Giannoli's new film, Marguerite, manages to turn its laughable Florence Foster Jenkins-inspired title character into the tragic heroine. 
by Henry Stewart. 

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Catherine Frot as the title character in Marguerite, directed by Xavier Giannoli
Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group
   
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NO ONE EVER HAD A VOICE as awful as Florence Foster Jenkins’s. The Wilkes–Barre-born socialite had such a lack of rhythm and pitch that you can’t even mimic just how bad she was, even if you can’t sing. The few shocking recordings she left behind, from the 1940s, might make you want to burst out laughing, but it isn’t so easy to scoff at the character based on Jenkins that gives Xavier Giannoli’s new film, Marguerite, its name—one more operatic and European than “Flo.” (Jenkins will also be the subject of an upcoming biopic, Florence Foster Jenkins, directed by Stephen Frears and starring Meryl Streep, as well as a quasidocumentary, The Florence Foster Jenkins Story, featuring Joyce DiDonato.) As played, so extraordinarily, by Catherine Frot, Marguerite is so deluded it’s touching, a wealthy baroness and amateur-beyond-amateur soprano surrounded by yes-men, including a husband so embarrassed he has taken a mistress rather than confront his wife about her talentlessness. 

Marguerite believes she can passably perform the most challenging arias in the repertoire, like “Der Hölle Rache,” when it fact she has a voice like a chew toy; even casual moviegoers with no ear for opera will be able to appreciate her ineptitude. That said, Giannoli is careful not to alienate non-opera fans; no sample of diegetic vocal music, whether Purcell or Pagliacci, seems to last more than a few bars before editor Cyril Nakache cuts to what another character is saying or doing—because a few uninterrupted minutes of opera are too much to ask of an audience watching a movie about an opera singer! A peacock that roams Marguerite’s estate, having once lent a feather to a costume, is often heard shrieking, something like a goat—or its owner. 

 

But you pity the soprano, especially when she doesn’t see the rolled eyes or hear the sniggers that greet her when she opens her mouth to sing. She’s not only clueless; she’s desolate. You can always see it in her eyes, except when the music starts, because then they fill with longing, with whatever mysterious emotion she hears in her favorite works. The disconnect between her enthusiasm and her talent is heartbreaking; Frot impossibly imbues such a garish character with unassailable dignity. 

With some modest encouragement from some young avant-garde artists, who appreciate her ironically, Marguerite decides she’ll stop singing only private concerts for her music society and perform a public recital. The plot development feels familiar; scene after scene of training (with a new music coach, a washed-up tenor played by Michel Fau, blackmailed into helping by Marguerite’s loyal butler, played by Denis M’Punga), followed by others of private admissions that she can’t succeed, recall the structure of a feel-good sports film, in which the gang of written-off misfits proves the naysayers wrong with a climactic triumph—except this is opera, not sandlot ball, and practice won’t make perfect; you know that the tone-deaf Marguerite is headed for spectacular public failure, making this movie radically subversive in its construction, and ostensibly cruel.

Cleverly, though, Giannoli and his cowriter, Marcia Romano, turn Marguerite’s personal humiliation into the stuff of opera—epic tragedy, summed up in the final image, of her prone body. I thought Giannoli bestowed the ultimate kindness, finally giving Marguerite what she wanted: credibility in her chosen field, just not as a singer—as a character, the tragic heroine. —Henry Stewart 



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