Monday, March 07, 2016

Marguerite: Brace Yourself for the High Notes

Florence Foster Jenkins was the William Hung of the early Twentieth Century. She loved opera, but it didn’t love her back. Her infamous rendition of Mozart’s Queen of the Night remains a perversely popular novelty recording, easily found online. The strangely immortal Jenkins’ life and art, such as it was, has now inspired a Gallic doppelganger, the title character of Xavier Giannoli’s Marguerite (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Marguerite Dumont was blessed with a sizable fortune, a love of culture, and a singing voice that sounds like cats being strangled. However, she since she cannot really hear herself, those around her willingly indulge her artistic pretensions, due to said fortune. Her philandering husband Georges owes his title to her, but he finds her private recitals excruciatingly painful to attend. Probably Dumont’s biggest booster is their imposing butler-steward-fixer Madelbos, who regularly photographs his mistress in iconic opera costumes. Yet, his deep down, motivations are crueler than the rest of the hangers-on feeding her delusions.

Tonally, Marguerite is a tricky sort of film to pull off, but Giannoli modulates it perfectly. We do not want to feel like the hipster anarchists who snarkily mock Dumont behind her back, but there is still no denying the jaw-dropping, ear-rattling spectacle of her performances. Somehow, Giannoli and his lead Catherine Frot walk that fine line quite adroitly.

Frot is indeed terrific as Dumont. She gives a big, expansive performance, but always clearly conveys the sensitivity of Dumont’s soul. The audience never resents her eccentricity or privilege. Rather, we hope against hope she will somehow start to hit those high notes. André Marcon also slowly teases out unexpected emotion from her initially cold fish-like husband, while Denis Mpunga’s commanding and somewhat ominous presence makes Madelbos a force to be reckoned with.

Marguerite is a classy period production that elegantly recreates the trapping of Golden 1920s France. It is quite amazing how easily it relates to contemporary pop culture. Frankly, Dumont and Jenkins would probably be even bigger celebrities today than they were in their day. With that in mind, it is not surprising there is a straight-up Florence Foster Jenkins bio-picture in the works, but the casting of Meryl Streep as the off-key soprano should make cineastes blood run cold. It is the subtly of Giannoli’s approach and Frot’s performance that make Marguerite such an entertaining and ultimately quietly moving film. Of course, Streep hasn’t done subtly in years.

Marguerite is a film of chaste passion and (admittedly misplaced) artistic devotion. There is something rather touching and maybe even inspiring about the portrait that emerges. Frankly, it is exactly the sort of graceful French film that could become a breakout arthouse hit. Highly recommended, Marguerite opens this Friday (3/11) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center downtown and the Paris Theatre uptown.