Marguerite

 

starstarstar

 

 

In all but name this is the Florence Foster Jenkins story ahead of Meryl Streep’s take on her 

and transposed to France.


Not heard of here since he made The Singer with Gérard Depardieu in 2006, Xavier Giannoli has now turned to the story of an amateur singer who finds applause and fame despite having a voice that would have been ridiculed had she turned up to audition at an opera house. Giannoli, co-writer with Marcia Romano in addition to directing, sets this version of the tale in Paris in the 1920s and the central figure, clearly based on the American Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944), is named Marguerite Dumont.

It should be stressed that Marguerite has already been a huge hit in France although using this material for a full-length film is challenging. The central joke has appeal: Marguerite (Catherine Frot) is a baroness whose social standing enables her to sing for charitable purposes in country houses. She performs initially for audiences who will play up to her illusions when she innocently murders arias by Mozart. However, to sustain the joke is not easy and treating Marguerite at length on film leads to tricky issues both in terms of credibility and of avoiding the risk of it all becoming a cruel joke at Marguerite’s expense.

 

 Marguerite

Hear her song: Catherine Frot

 

To my mind Giannoli partly succeeds and partly fails. He is astute enough to offer a handsomely mounted film which, when other characters sing, can deliver proper performances of popular pieces by the likes of Purcell and Handel. Furthermore, Giannoli incorporates a useful subplot involving a conniving journalist (Sylvain Dieuaide) while additionally utilising Marguerite’s relationship with her unfaithful husband (André Marcon) as a developing counter-theme. There’s even an echo of Erich von Stroheim’s character in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. in the person of Marguerite’s devoted black servant Madelbos (Denis Mpunga).

However, the film’s prime asset is Catherine Frot. She may be less well known to us than many French actresses but proves ideal in the title role. Yet, paradoxically, the best things here throw into relief the film’s failings. While Frot could clearly sustain the film as tragi-comedy creating an effective balance between real feeling (Marguerite genuinely loves classical music) and absurdity (the real Florence Foster Jenkins was indeed heard regularly on BBC Radio’s Family Favourites), Giannoli’s film fails her. Told in five chapters lasting 129 minutes it seems much too long and its operatic climax is close to camp. It comes to seem half believable biography and half unreal fantasy, but its success in France may be evidence that I take it too seriously and that it will give much pleasure to British audiences too.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Catherine Frot, André Marcon, Michel Fau, Christa Théret, Denis Mpunga, Sylvain Dieuaide, Aubert Fenoy, Sophia Leboutte, Théo Cholbi.

 

Dir Xavier Giannoli, Pro Olivier Delbosc and Marc Missonier, Screenplay Xavier Giannoli with Marcia Romano, Ph Glynn Speeckaert, Art Dir Martin Kurel, Ed Cyril Nakache, Music Ronan Maillard, Costumes Pierre-Jean Larroque.

 

Fidélité Films/Gabriel Inc./Sirena Films/Scope Pictures/France 3 Cinéma/Juror Cinéma/CN5 Productions/Canal+-Picturehouse Entertainment.
129 mins. France/Czech Republic/Belgium. 2015. Rel: 18 March 2015. Cert. 15.