Sad story of a tragic opera wannabe

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Marguerite (M). Director: Xavier Giannoli. Starring: Catherine Frot, André Marcon, Denis Mpunga, Christa Théret, Michel Fau, Sylvain Dieuaide. 129 minutes

'People may say I can't sing,' Florence Foster Jenkins, American socialite and amateur operatic soprano, famously declared. 'But no one can ever say I didn't sing.' Jenkins, whose life and strange career in New York during the first half of the 20th century loosely inspire the comedic drama Marguerite by French auteur Xavier Giannoli, cuts an intriguing and tragic cult figure in the history of popular music; devoted to her craft but oblivious to her demonstrable lack of talent.

A mainstream biopic titled Florence Foster Jenkins, directed by popular British filmmaker Stephen Frears and starring Hollywood's favourite versatile leading lady Meryl Streep, is currently being rolled out, to thus far favourable response. But it would be a shame for it to overshadow Giannoli's offbeat fictionalised take; in particular the brilliant performance it contains from French comedic actor Catherine Frot, as the titular Marguerite, fictional avatar for the real life Jenkins.

The film transfers the story from New York to 1920s France, where Marguerite hosts gatherings of a local opera club in her provincial home. It opens with one such gathering, with a series of choral and smaller ensemble performances paving the way to an appearance by the hostess herself. Marguerite shares its heroine's love of opera; these 'warm-up' acts are gorgeously rendered. And by contrast they set up the punchline that is Marguerite's own tone-deaf yowling.

Denis Mpunga and Catherine Frot in MargueriteFrot sings badly, beautifully. The pitchy squeaks that stand for the top notes in her chosen aria, and which set the peacock feather in her hair to quivering, are delivered with hilarious conviction.

 

"It cannot be merely ego that dims Marguerite's ear to her awful mastication of melody and technique."

 

But we are not invited merely to ridicule Marguerite, as many of those who attend her performances do. Frot's performance channels deep wells of emotion beneath the outrageous facade. It cannot be merely ego that dims Marguerite's ear to her awful mastication of melody and technique. The delusion clearly runs deep, but from where? Sympathy takes root.

It is characteristic of Giannoli's direction and screenplay (co-written with Argentinian born Marcia Romano) that the humour in Marguerite is bittersweet at best; that warm touches are often viciously subverted and, conversely, that sweetness is found in unexpected places. The feigned automotive disasters that prevent Marguerite's husband Georges from listening to her sing seem lightly comedic, but are revealed to reflect a callousness that hints at a cause to his wife's dislocation from reality.

Similarly, a servant, Madelbos (Mpunga), is bent on protecting his mistress, but is shown to have sinister motives for doing so. On the other hand, others who exploit Marguerite later become her would-be guardians. Brash young journalist Lucien (Dieuaide) pens a mockingly enthusiastic review of the aforementioned performance, which sets Marguerite on a path to public notoriety — to her oblivious delight. Yet Marguerite later becomes an object of Lucien's affection, and even protection.

The quote from Jenkins above suggests a quality that can be attributed to her counterpart Marguerite: the joy she gains from believing that she is a great singer doesn't depend on the reality or otherwise of that belief. Herein lie the ethical thorns: is it right or wrong for those who care for Marguerite to allow her to continue in her delusion? The question echoes the concept of a life-lie, invoked by Henrik Ibsen to argue that human beings are sometimes better off living in at least partial ignorance of reality.

Through varying degrees of selfishness and selflessness, and with intentions both good and ill, the characters around Marguerite choose to keep the truth from her. Implicitly, Marguerite asks us to reflect on the rightness of characters' decisions to act or not to act; yet the film itself makes no definite judgment, offering only ambiguous answers. These are at times delivered with dashes of touching magical realism, on the way to a climax that is both tragic and intriguing.

 


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is acting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Marguerite, Xavier Giannoli, Catherine Frot, André Marcon, Denis Mpunga, Christa Théret

 

 

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Existing comments

Opera plots are melodramas, therefore 'sensible' is not a word associated with opera. This lady believes she has a talent, and belief sustains many people. Singing obviously makes her feel of value. And who amongst us doesn't have delusions? Someone who doesn't know the meaning of agile, capricious or droll.
Pam | 20 April 2016


"Pam" is incorrect. It is by no means true that "opera plots are melodramas". For the first century of so of the existence of "opera" (as conventionally understood) that assertion is demonstrably false. Mozart's supreme operas are certainly not melodramas; nor are Verdi's greatest (unless, of course, one wants to paint Shakespeare's plays as melodramas,too); and Wagner would (rightly) recoil at the suggestion about his operas. The great works of the 2oth century are not melodramas either -- think of the best of Strauss, Britten, Enescu, Janacek, to name only a handful. an opera needs a coherent and morally convincing libretto to survive.
Dr John Carmody | 21 April 2016


Thanks for your response, John. The only opera-like work I have seen is Handel's "Messiah", which I loved very much. I bow to your superior knowledge of the genre.
Pam | 24 April 2016


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