Winner of four Cesar Awards, including Best Actress for Catherine Frot, Xavier Giannoli's Marguerite is inspired by the true story of Florence Foster Jenkins, also the subject of the upcoming Meryl Streep-led film Florence Foster Jenkins. Jenkins, a New York heiress with operatic dreams grander than her talent, began giving recitals in her 40's after acquiring enough financial stability that she could devote herself to her musical aspirations.
In Giannoli's film, Marguerite (Frot) is a wealthy woman obsessed with the opera who surrounds herself with people and things that affirm obsession. Despite the not so subtle rejection of her talent by her husband Georges (Andre Marcon), Marguerite's almost child-like enthusiasm and fiercely protective circle allow her almost unlimited freedom to indulge her creative fantasies.
Marguerite is a comedy, yet Marguerite as a woman is not played for laughs. As portrayed by Frot, Marguerite is a woman of intelligence, enthusiasm, and commitment - she simply lacks that which might make the package complete. Set in 1920's Paris, Marguerite also picked up Cesar Awards for its costume design, production design and sound. The film, perhaps a tad too long and a bit overly committed toward the end in explaining the root of Marguerite's obsession, is an enchanting and utterly entertaining effort largely on the strength of its tremendous ensemble cast led by Frot's disciplined and earnest performance.
The easiest comparison, of course, would be to compare it to watching an "American Idol" audition, especially one of the earlier rounds when we're mostly watching to see how simply godawful those who audition are going to be. As I'm sure you are aware, it gets pretty darn awful.
Much like those auditioners, Marguerite believes unwaveringly in her talent and has surrounded herself with people who fiercely protect that belief including, most notably, her butler Mandelbos (Denis Mpunga), an intimidating chap whose intense glare can squelch anyone tempted to not respond favorably to Marguerite's selectively attended performances. The film kicks off with such a performance, an elaborate benefit for war orphans at the Dumont Estate that features Hazel (Christa Theret), a young talent who arrives as a stand-in for someone else, along with two young men who sneak their way into the recital, the young journalist Lucien (Sylvain Dieuaide) and Kyrill (Aubert Fenoy), an anarchist and experimental artist.
The build-up to Marguerite's performance in this opening scene is handled with patience and care by Giannoli and the pay-off is tremendous. On one hand, we know to expect that Marguerite's performance will not be a stand-out but I don't think it's possible to be fully prepared for intense her devotion is to that less than satisfying performance.
When Lucien publishes a rave review of her performance, Marguerite's fantasies are further fueled and before long is preparing for what will be, somewhat to everyone's dismay, her first truly public perforrmance without the safety net that she fails to realize is a safety net. She hires a voice teacher (Michel Fau), a professional singer whose need for money overrules his undeniable awareness that the cause is hopeless.
Marguerite would be worth watching if only for the performance of Frot, whose loving care and respect for her character provides an emotional core through which one grows great empathy for this purely motivated woman's drive. I found myself equally enthralled by Denis Mpunga's understated yet honest performance as Mandelbos, while Michel Fau, who had a Cesar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, shines as the vocal instructor tasked with the seemingly impossible.
Marguerite has been picked up by Cohen Media Group for its U.S. distribution and arrives in Indy on April 1 at Landmark's Keystone Art Cinema. For lovers of French cinema, it's a must see experience featuring one of this past year's best lead actress performances.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic