“Marguerite” — The Screech Heard Round the World


APRIL 21, 2016


Her name was Florence Foster Jenkins, and you’ll be hearing a lot about her this summer.

Jenkins was a prominent New York socialite who had a lifelong love of opera.  In the 1930s, she began giving a series of recitals at private salons or recital halls for her friends, singing the best of Mozart, Verdi and Strauss.  There was only one problem: she couldn’t sing.  I mean, she really couldn’t sing.  She had no acquaintance with rhythm or pitch, and the screech that came out of her mouth eventually made her a cult figure in music circles, culminating with her first public performance, a disastrous 1944 recital she gave at…Carnegie Hall!

Jenkins’ life has fascinated dramatists, and she has already been the subject of a popular stage comedy (“Glorious!”) as well as the Broadway play “Souvenir” (which featured a Tony-nominated performance by Judy Kaye).  On August 12, a new film of her life, titled “Florence Foster Jenkins,” will be released, starring none other than Meryl Streep.

I bow to no man in my regard for Streep as the finest living film actress around, but she’s going to have to be damned good to top the performance of Catherine Frot in the French-language film “Marguerite,” which is currently opening in art houses around the country (and should be added immediately to your Netflix queue).

“Marguerite” is a fictionalized version of Jenkins’ life, transporting her story to France in the personage of  French socialite Marguerite Dumont (perhaps a sly nod to the actress Margaret Dumont, who played the snooty socialite in the Marx Brothers films) who regularly holds Sunday salons for her music club.  We see her performance through the eyes of Hazel (Christa Théret), a back-up soprano who actually has talent; and two party-crashers — anarchist Kyril (Aubert Fenoy), who thinks that Marguerite (Frot) is so awful that she’s fabulous, and Lucien (Sylvain Dieuaide), a journalist who is genuinely curious about this delusional socialite.

The only person missing from the party is Marguerite’s husband Georges (André Marcon), who has fabricated an auto breakdown so as to miss yet another celebration of his wife’s caterwauling.

And Marguerite does not disappoint.  As soon as she opens her mouth, terrified children run hiding under the table, men quickly hightail it to the bar and her club members sit once again in stunned silence.

Do we laugh when we first hear Marguerite begins to mangle Mozart’s “Queen of the Night”?  Of course.  It’s horrifyingly funny.  But director Xavier Giannoli makes sure this is the last time we guffaw at his leading lady.  Even though she is oblivious to how awful she sounds, Marguerite feels that she has a gift and is determined to share it with the world.  And as more and more people laugh at her or try to swindle her, the more protective we become of this perhaps misguided soul who has the courage to step on a stage and do what she loves.

That the character manages to become a subject of affection is largely to Frot’s fearless performance as Marguerite.  She has to make us believe in Marguerite’s delusion without making her an object of derision.  Plus its is not easy to sing badly believably without making it a joke.  Try it sometime — Frot convinces us that Marguerite is doing her very best while still being so awful.

The production design of the film is gorgeous and the cast is first-rate, particularly the outrageous Michel Fau as a foppish tenor on the way down who is blackmailed into becoming Marguerite’s singing teacher and Denis Mpunga as Madelbos, Marguerite’s devoted servant and greatest protector, who bears an eerie resemblance to Samuel L. Jackson’s servant in “Django Unchained.”

The only area where the film falls down is the script, written by Giannoli and Marcia Romano.  Not that the film is badly written — far from it — but there’s just too much of it.  There are subplots everywhere — a budding romance between Lucien and Hazel is particularly useless — and after the disastrous recital (which should happen near the end of the film), there’s a lengthy storyline in a hospital when Marguerite learns the truth that goes on forevvvvver.  The film runs over 2 hours, and it shouldn’t.

Nonetheless, what is good in “Marguerite” is very good indeed, and after congratulating yourself for getting through it, I guarantee that you will think back and smile of the many pleasures of the film and mostly of the towering performance of Catherine Frot.

You’re up next, Meryl.  Whadaya you got?