Before Stephen Frears and Meryl Streep bring us the story of New York’s Florence Foster Jenkins next month, the French get their version of the story in first with Marguerite ****, which transposes the same tale to high society Paris just after the First World War.
Here, Marguerite Dumont (the name surely echoes that of the actress who was the Marx brothers’ regular comic foil) is a wealthy patron of her own salon, played spectacularly by Catherine Frot. Marguerite organises concerts and the invited guests thrill to her musicians and discoveries. However, they must grit their teeth when the hostess herself take centre stage. She is a dreadful singer.
Now, this is tough to do, to be so perfectly off key and I have to say watching Frot go hell for leather for the high notes and miss them so brilliantly is quite hilarious. At first.
Her husband (Andre Marcon) will do anything to miss a recital, including making his own car breakdown. While society laughs at her, some ironical young wags reckon Marguerite would be perfect for their Dadaist happening and offer her a real gig and post a glowing review.
It’s the start of the comedy turning to tragedy. From brilliantly treads the knife edge, wrapping herself in the character’s delusion, offering hints that she knows full well what she’s doing, yet remaining true to her dream.
Her determination is fostered by her faithful manservant, Madelbos (Denis Mpunga), who takes her photos in a variety of the great operatic roles, so she can live the life of a diva, at least in her own head and house.
It is indeed funny every time we watch her sing so recklessly. As is the performance of the singer Pezzini (marvellously , flouncingly played by Michel Fau) who is assigned to teach her. That is, until the delusion overtakes Marguerite and the film shifts towards that of an opera, and we spiral into tragedy and melodrama.
In the end, she does live an operatic life, one framed by Madelbos watching from the sidelines. It’s amazing how at the start we laugh at her singing but by the end we’re too heartbroken to even giggle.
Director Xavier Giannoli made the excellent Depardieu film The Singer a few years ago. He’s an intuitive film maker, with a sense of flamboyance and atmosphere, good on the fallibility of performers and showbusiness. It might be a bit long, but it’s a funny, subtle and beautiful film, which won Frot the Cesar for Best Actress, as well as awards for costume, sound and design. Marguerite looks great and sounds fabulous, until the star opens her mouth. But your heart will go out to her.