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Sad story of a tragic opera wannabe

  • 21 April 2016



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.

Frot 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