Director: Xavier Giannoli
Cast: Catherine Frot, André Marcon, Michel Fau, Christa Théret, Denis Mpunga, Sylvain Dieuaide, Aubert Fenoy, Sophia Leboutte, Théo Cholbi, Astrid Whettnall
MPAA Rating: (for brief graphic nudity and sexual content, and scene of drug use)
Running Time: 2:09
Release Date: 3/11/16 (limited); 3/25/16 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | March 25, 2016
While it may be inspired by a specific person, the story of Marguerite feels as if it could apply to almost any celebrity we watch with a sense of morbid curiosity as their rise and fall play out on a public stage. Perhaps it's more than curiosity, too. Surely there's a reason some of us feel the need to see someone's downfall, especially if that person is famous and more especially if that fame is questionable for some real or imagined reason.
It's the same reason some people slow down to stare as they pass a car wreck or, in times past, might have paid to check out the carnival sideshow, with its people with physical deformities or odd talents on display. It's likely no accident that writer/director Xavier Giannoli includes a bearded woman among the cast of characters in this film. In case it's not entirely obvious that he wants us think of these characters in terms of their "oddities," Giannoli also offers a deaf pianist, who accompanies a singer by reading his or her lips. That's talent.
Of far lesser talent but of greater import is the title character, "the Great Marguerite Dumont," as the film's opening chapter dubs her. In the film's opening scenes, there is much talk about her. She is a world-renowned opera singer. She has performed in all of the great operas in all of the great opera houses around the globe. In her and her husband's manor, there are photos of her posing in full costume for each of the characters she performed over the years. Everyone wants to hear her sing, but she has taken to only performing in front of small, private audiences. People try to sneak into the estate to hear one of these rare performances. Photographers are barred from entering the grounds.
The reason becomes painfully clear once we finally hear Marguerite (Catherine Frot, in a strikingly vulnerable performance) sing in front of the Amadeus Club, a music society that is raising money for orphans of the Great War. In attendance are music critic Lucien Beaumont (Sylvian Dieuaide), rising talent Hazel (Christa Théret), and poet/artist Kyrill Von Priest (Aubert Fenoy), the critic's friend who has climbed the wall of the estate with his accomplice in order to hear the mysterious Marguerite. Notably absent from the scene is her husband Georges (André Marcon), who is out for a drive and covers his hands in motor oil to make it appear as if his roadster has had engine problems.
After all of the buildup, the joke is that Marguerite is an atrocious singer—out of tune, in the wrong key, and about half-a-bar behind or ahead of the orchestra. That's at her best. Her trills sound like a howling monkey. The polite audience members leave the parlor shortly after she begins. The dumbstruck can't stop watching and listening, barely able to suppress their chuckles.
It's a good joke, but more importantly, the first time that Giannoli allows us to laugh at Marguerite is also the last time. That's not to say there aren't more moments of people reacting to her singing, but the focus shifts following the opening sequence. We watch, for example, the face of the once-famous, now-struggling opera star Atos Pezzini (Michel Fau) as he auditions Marguerite to become his student—his stone face eventually cracking with a single twitch of his eye. The teacher and possible student meet, appropriately enough, after his final performance of that Leoncavallo opera about the tragic clown.
That's Marguerite's role here, too, although the tragic elements of the character are Giannoli's central focus. She is naïvely delusional about her talents, but there is no harm in it at first. Everyone is too polite to tell her the truth about her singing. We learn that her devoted servant Madelbos (Denis Mpunga) has been taking the photographs of her in costume and hiding the harsh notices of her most recent performance. Lucien's rapturous review of that opening performance leads her to believe that she is worthy of a more prominent stage with a larger audience. He also believes the entire thing is harmless and instantly spots a passionate, lonely woman.
Marguerite's marriage is essentially a sham. She married Georges and just happened to receive claim to his title. Georges married her because she had money and could pay his bills. He is having an affair with another woman (Astrid Whettnall), while Marguerite sits alone wearing the clownish mask of a commedia dell'arte character. Marguerite may be lying to herself about her abilities—or may be entirely ignorant of her lack of them (She believes she only has problems on the high notes). She is not, though, lying about her love of music or her feeling that it is the only thing in her life that she has left. We can see through the lie and only observe the broken woman that would remain if it disappeared. That's the tragedy.
The turning point comes when she becomes a tool for Kyrill during a nightclub performance, which promises the members of high society in attendance everything they could want but gives them the politically apolitical slap of a Dada show. Its "success" eventually brings us to the opera star's lessons and an ambitious plan from Marguerite. Giannoli allows a little hope to spring from the progression.
Whether or not that hope is fulfilled is key, and here, Giannoli adjusts the tone yet again. The film borders on the absurd in the denouement, but it also maintains the essence of Marguerite's plight. Just as it's no accident that Giannoli offers a bearded lady and Pagliacci, there's a reason that the penultimate shot of Marguerite is of a camera, impassively witnessing the story's conclusion. A little honesty can go a long way, but honesty comes with the risk of missing the spectacle.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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