How do you tell people who think they have talent that they don’t? This is a minor question that you hope you don’t have to deal with. It’s also the beginning idea of a new film by French director Xavier Giannolli called Marguerite. I call it a beginning idea, because the movie springboards off of it into more interesting territory eventually.
It begins brilliantly with an extended sequence at a lavish mansion outside of Paris in the 1920s. A prestigious musical society is holding an annual party and benefit, to which a lovely singer named Hazel (Christa Théret) has been hired to perform, along with a host of other good classical singers and musicians. Also attending by chance is a cutting edge young critic named Lucien Beaumont, played by Sylvain Dieuaide, and his friend, a boisterous literary anarchist named Kyrill. Everything is going well, until the hostess of the gathering, the wealthy patron and owner of the house, Madame Marguerite Dumont, comes on to top off the evening’s entertainment with a Mozart aria. She opens her mouth, and a terrible, off-key screeching wail comes out. She can’t sing. The jaw-dropping reaction from Lucien and Hazel is priceless. Kyrill, the anarchist, is absolutely delighted. “She’s quite mad!” he says.
As it turns out, Marguerite has been doing this for years, and in exchange for her generous patronage, the music society has pretended to appreciate her singing, only laughing at her behind her back. Marguerite’s husband, an industrialist played by André Marcon, is mortified, and has lost whatever loving sentiments he may have once had towards his wife. Marguerite herself is played, in a performance of remarkable conviction, by Catherine Frot, an actress of great distinction who is unfortunately little known outside of France.
Lucien Beaumont, with the hidden motive of gaining the financial support of Marguerite for his and his friend’s artistic projects, writes a good review of her performance in the small newspaper that he works for. She sees the review, and in delight agrees to sing at one of the Dada-inspired café shows they are planning. From there her ambitions turn to a public recital, and her husband is persuaded to hire a professional voice teacher, a former opera star played by the excellent and imposing Michel Fau. We in the audience may find ourselves cringing each time she sings—less with derisive laughter as the film goes on, and more with concern. Because Marguerite, although lacking in talent, is a wonderful and compassionate person, in contrast to most of the people who are turning up their noses at her. And this is the very heart of the matter at which the director, Giannolli, has been aiming. What is the value of art compared to the value of a human being?
It seems a little hard to believe that a singer could sound this bad and not know it, but in fact the story is loosely based on the actual case of an American opera singer named Florence Foster Jenkins who was oblivious in the same way. But the film’s odd premise is used for a deeper intent—when are we more vulnerable than in failure, and when more in need of love?