Very loosely inspired by the dubious art of American amateur opera signer Florence Foster Jenkins — soon to be the subject of a Stephen Frears biopic starring Meryl Streep — Marguerite is a marvel, a bravura dramedy that beautifully balances tragedy and comedy to the point where you can’t be sure which is which.
In Paris, 1920, socialite Marguerite Dumont (Catherine Frot, who won the César, the French Oscar, for her performance) does not see the sarcasm in a review by newspaper music critic Lucien Beaumont (Sylvain Dieuaide) of her screeching operatic performance at a private charity event. An ardent music lover and profoundly passionate collector of theatrical costumes, sheet music, and other memorabilia, Marguerite has been deceived by all around her in an emperor’s-new-clothes sort of way about the stupendously off-key awfulness of her singing. (I cannot help but imagine that this highly fictionalized character is named for Margaret Dumont, the Marx Brothers’ straight woman who it was alleged — wrongly — did not understand that she was appearing in comedies.) She is a very sweet and kind woman whom no one wishes to hurt… but she’s also very rich and very willing to spread her money around to her friends and acolytes, particularly of the starving-artist type.
As French filmmaker Xavier Giannoli delves past the amused ridicule and into Marguerite’s life of loneliness and the assuaging joy she gets from singing, we begin to wonder if her self-delusion isn’t actually healthy; isn’t it enough that she loves music? Lucien becomes a new friend, won over by her charm and enthusiasm, joining those of her inner circle whose protective cover is absolute. (Is her butler, Madelbos [Denis Mpunga, marvelously understated], secretly in love with her? He is certainly far more solicitous than her cold, distant, perpetually embarrassed husband, Georges [André Marcon].) The 20s are just beginning to roar here, and as Marguerite finds herself enjoying, for the first time, a taste of bohemia, she nevertheless remains unaware of the burgeoning of irony and snark in the culture around her, as embodied in Lucien’s review and the embrace of her as something of a joke by his friends. But the philosophical question is clear to us: Is it better to be wise and jaded and cynical about art, or blissfully undiscriminating about it?