A compelling lead performance can't save this awkward, mean-spirited film.
April 28, 2016
There's a difference between passion and talent, though few people dare to explain that to Marguerite Dumont (Catherine Frot). The fictional character, inspired by a real-life New York socialite, lives for music. Unfortunately, as much as she loves belting out a song, she can't hold a tune to save her life. "Does she always sing like this?" asks young critic Lucien Beaumont (Sylvain Dieuaide) when he first hears her voice at one of her frequent soirees. He's as shocked by the response as he is at the sound ringing in his ears; "No. She's come a long way," he's told.
Marguerite tells her tale, transporting the story to 1920s France to avoid conflicting with another film about its obvious source of inspiration, the forthcoming Florence Foster Jenkins. If you think a narrative about a wealthy woman's repeated attempts to sing in public would be riddled with both tragedy and comedy, you'd be right. However writer-director Xavier Giannoli (Superstar) struggles to find the ideal balance between the two. It's not just many of the characters that are outwardly laughing at, not with, the aspiring opera star. Always trying to find humour in the situation, the movie itself seems to be trying to inspire the same reaction.
Indeed, the film's depiction of the behaviour of those closest to her demonstrates this approach. Marguerite's husband (André Marcon) belittles her to anyone who'll listen, while her loyal butler (Denis Mpunga) hopes to profit from his photographs of her outlandish behaviour. When Lucien befriends the wannabe soprano after reviewing her concert, he's clearly secretly joking at his new pal's expense. The feature stresses again and again that no one wants to ruin Marguerite's fantasy of grandeur, though it also makes plain that they're enjoying watching her make a fool out of herself. Showing them as much empathy as it does its protagonist, Marguerite follows in their footsteps.
Accordingly, any kindness in the movie is tinged with unmistakable cruelty — and it's an uncomfortable mix to say the least. Frot's performance won a Caesar award, and proves the most nuanced and convincing element of the film. Sadly, she's left languishing in an effort that treats her character in a cartoonish manner. Any intended satire about the falseness of upper-class society fails to hit the mark.
While Marguerite's tone proves awkward, it's technical artistry is never in doubt. Giannoli's skills as a filmmaker are best evidenced in the sumptuous imagery he brings to the screen, which shows levels of texture and intricacy his script does not. In fact, the movie's detailed production design and lingering cinematography often sit at odds with its comical treatment of its central figure. If only the care and affection of the former could've extended to the latter.
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