The comedy of manners is the weapon of choice for satirising the wealthy and powerful. Its favourite target is vanity, like in the fairy tale Emperor’s New Clothes where a vain ruler is fooled into believing that beautiful garments have been made for him only to display his pompous nakedness for all to see. The narrative of Marguerite (2015) is framed around this theme, except that instead of clothes the hapless victim is encouraged to believe she has a beautiful voice. In her case, the self-deception is less about vanity and more about her love of singing and the inability to hear her own voice.
Marguerite is loosely based on the true story of American socialite Florence Foster Jenkins. This sumptuous art-house style French production portrays her as a wealthy and eccentric benefactor of the arts in 1920s Paris. She is easily manipulated by the flattery of others and obsessive about opera singing. She also loves her unfaithful and financially dependent husband who is incapable of telling her the truth about her voice and who always has an excuse for missing her recitals. Her friends and house staff protect her from the knowledge of how badly she sings in gratitude for her kindness and because she is a ‘lovely lady’. The stakes are raised when Marguerite decides on a public recital where of course the audience cannot be stacked with grateful patrons. The resulting performance is a seat-squirming experience that fills both the on-screen theatre and your own cinema with painful laughter and vicarious embarrassment for someone who can be so cruel to music. The film itself becomes an operatic performance of pride’s folly.
This could have been an unbearable story made worse by intolerable singing, but it works well as a comically sad tale about a gullible woman who wants desperately to believe she can create beauty with her voice. The filming, sets and costumes evoke the era with authenticity and French actress Catherine Frot’s subtle performance balances the sublime with the ridiculous. Frot’s wide-eyed trust in others is both endearing and engaging as she draws us into her make-believe world that borders on madness. Some truly beautiful operatic voices create a haunting background score that only accentuates the appalling noise that comes from Marguerite’s voice box. Its an entertaining story but don’t be surprised if you catch yourself asking “what is so funny about bad singing?” and feeling embarrassed for laughing at another person’s delusions.
Director: Xavier Giannolli
Stars: Catherine Frot, Andre Marcon, Michel Fau