Cover your ears and open your hearts: In French director Xavier Giannoli’s pitch-perfect comedy of manners, Marguerite, about a shameless chanteuse with a surplus of money and a shortage of talent buys her way into the spotlight, exposing the hypocrisy of her unctuous social circle in the process.
In the role that won her France’s most prestigious acting award there is, a César, Catherine Frot plays Marguerite, a wealthy baroness and amateur-beyond-amateur soprano surrounded by yes-men. She is neglected by her husband, who’s so embarrassed by his wife’s inability to sing that he has taken a mistress rather than confront his wife about her talentless-ness. Marguerite finds liberation in singing as it distracts her from the profoundly lonely and cocooned life she leads.
WATCH: SBS Movies interview with Catherine Frot
Marguerite is loosely based on the infamous New York socialite and amateur opera singer, Florence Foster Jenkins. The Wilkes–Barre-born socialite had such a lack of rhythm making her a popular joke in her own time. Jenkins gave recitals for private audiences for three decades, until her major public concert debut in 1944 at Carnegie Hall that was critically savaged and left her devastated. She died shortly thereafter.
LISTEN to a recording of Florence Foster Jenkins
In an interview with Film Ink, Frot describes Marguerite as “a tragic heroine…she can make you laugh and cry at the same time. You pity her – she’s tragic. She’s big and small in a way. There’s a beautiful sentence that the professor of singing says just before the final performance, that there’s a small line between genius and ridicule. It’s very close; there’s not much difference.”
In both funny and profound ways, Frot argues the power of the film is its exploration of the subjectivity of art: “There is an important theme of beauty in the film – what is beauty in art? Who can judge that Picasso in the beginning of his career was not an artist at all? When the baroque music started to surface, people were covering their ears, as they did with free jazz. Who are we to judge what is beautiful and what’s ugly in art? Marguerite embodies art at its rawest form.”
Henry Lawson of Opera News argues Giannoli and his cowriter, Marcia Romano have turned Marguerite’s personal humiliation into the stuff of opera—epic tragedy, summed up in the final image, of her prone body.
He says: “I thought Giannoli bestowed the ultimate kindness, finally giving Marguerite what she wanted: credibility in her chosen field, just not as a singer—as a character, the tragic heroine.”
Don’t miss Marguerite on World Movies, Wednesday 10 May 8.30pm.