Now showing in Hong Kong

Film review: Marguerite – tragicomic drama about a tone-deaf opera singer

Florence Foster Jenkins inspired writer-director Xavier Giannoli’s bittersweet film, which deftly portrays the coterie facilitating the central character’s misguided desire to sing her heart out

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 April, 2016, 1:18pm
UPDATED : Monday, 18 April, 2016, 3:01pm

4/5 stars

Writer-director Xavier Giannoli’s bittersweet comedy drama is inspired by the life of Florence Foster Jenkins. A wealthy socialite living in New York in the 1930s, she was an amateur opera enthusiast who, despite her appalling vocal skills, realised her ambition of singing at Carnegie Hall. If this sounds dimly familiar, you might be aware that Meryl Streep is playing Florence in an upcoming biopic directed by Stephen Frears.

Giannoli transports the action to Paris, turning Florence into Marguerite Dumont (played by the wonderful Catherine Frot), but, thematically, this story of cruelty, hypocrisy and delusion is kept intact. When we join Marguerite, she is performing at an invitation-only concert in a luxurious chateau. After some beautiful warm-up acts, Marguerite arrives, her tone-deaf shrieking sending shockwaves through the guests.

With a mistress on the side, her husband Georges (Andre Marcon) is hardly in the category marked ‘decent’, but he is happy enough to facilitate his wife’s misguided desire to sing her heart out, keeping the critics at arm’s length. Others who orbit Marguerite are just as guilty of maintaining her belief in her own ability; her avaricious vocal coach (Michel Fau) and, especially, her fawning chauffeur, Madelbos (Denis Mpunga, excellent).

Massaging Marguerite’s ego, Madelbos also provides a handy structural device as he documents her goings-on with a series of tableaux-like photographs which also act as chapters (his feelings towards his own artistic skills also makes him an intriguing foil for his employer). There are others who circle her, including Sylvain Dieuaide’s music critic and Aubert Fenoy’s left-field artist, though Giannoli and his co-writer Marcia Romano are all too willing to let these characters disappear.

As the title suggests, it is Marguerite who is the focus, and the film gathers emotional resonance as it moves into the finale, with this would-be diva desperate to perform at a very public concert, a lamb to the slaughter. Frot, who won a César for her work, is particularly telling in what might also be called Marguerite’s last act – her voice both heartfelt and horrendous as comedy gives way to tragedy. The result is quietly heartbreaking.

Marguerite opens on April 21