Saturday 24 July 2021

From the archive: "Marguerite"

Do we blame the strenuous warblers of TV's The Voice and The X Factor? Either way, it would appear that lousy singers are set to enjoy a cinematic moment, all their duff notes fired at us in Dolby surround. In a few months, we'll see Florence Foster Jenkins, Stephen Frears' tale of the tonedeaf socialite who tormented early 20th century eardrums, with Meryl Streep building on the, ahem, success of Mamma Mia! in the lead role. By way of an opening act, we have the recent French hit Marguerite, with Catherine Frot as a fictionalised Gallic variant of the wayward chanteuse. 

Here is a costume drama with a tongue that's never too far removed from its cheek. The tenor (as it were) is set during the opening setpiece, a lavish 1920s soiree raising funds for war orphans. After soaring performances of pieces by Handel and Delibes, Frot's Mme. Marguerite Dumont steps up to the mic to stun a captive audience with her unique take on Mozart's "Queen of the Night" - within seconds demonstrating that not only can she not handle a tune, she barely sounds capable of picking it up. (The character's name, with its echoes of the Marx Brothers, may not be entirely coincidental: here's another screwball wreaking havoc on high society.)

The gag is that Marguerite's yelping, as with Jenkins's, should be met with amused tolerance and polite applause; somewhere in this story, there lurks a parable of undue deference. Very quickly, our heroine's house floods with white lilies from admirers and euphemistic newspaper reviews she seizes upon as proof of her genius. As a character, Marguerite could have been no more than a joke herself: a cossetted, self-deluded mediocrity possessed of the money to have bought Puccini's handwritten score for Tosca, but not the talent to do it justice. Yet the writer-director Xavier Giannoli - who pulled off a similar feat with Gérard Depardieu's contemporary lounge lizard in 2006's The Singer - works hard with Frot to humanise his heroine.

While noting her absurdities (posing for publicity shots as a Wagnerian Valkyrie), the script positions Marguerite as a woman using music as an escape from a husband (André Marcon) who's plainly embarrassed by her exhibitionism. Their Marguerite is a champion of free speech, partly because only in a truly free France would anyone be allowed to caterwaul as she does; her self-expression is regarded, perhaps a shade too fondly, as a positive rather than a grotesque indulgence or waste of everybody's time. Frot, tucking into this oblivious diva's all-white diet, even succeeds in suggesting how the Marguerites of this world might be dottily eccentric fun to be around, for a bit.

In this process, you can spy the softening that has traditionally guaranteed solid box-office returns. The chandeliers in the Dumonts' palatial estate are lit and gently rocked rather than brought crashing down, which sets Marguerite in opposition to the revolutionary urge in French cinema. (It remains to be seen whether the generally iconoclastic Frears will make more mischief with this set-up.) As it is, the incongruous jolt provided in Giannoli's film by one of Michael Nyman's Draughtman's Contract cues only points up how cosy the surrounding material is.

Siding with the performer over the rest of the world means framing those bad reviews kept from Marguerite by her faithful manservant Madelbos (Denis Mpunga) as acts of cruelty rather than, say, public service or an encouragement to do better, and you can't help but think Giannoli is relying upon the broadly uncritical dynamic of reality show and reality-show consumer. Ultimately, the film wants us to give the old girl a big hand for trying - to politely defer, as audiences of the time did. (Once again, a costume drama reminds us of the conservatism of the era.)

For all that, Marguerite is handsomely turned out within its monochrome palette - production designer Martin Kurel and cinematographer Glynn Speeckaert displaying a discernment absent in Marguerite Dumont's closest admirers - and the performance setpieces are reliably amusing, Frot belting something out like a sham-dram Liza or Barbra while Marcon tersely clutches his hunting rifle in the wings, primed to put either the poor woman or the assembled crowd out of their respective miseries. Those actors, intuiting the proximity of a much tougher film about the power of truth to wound or crush the sensitive soul, elevate the material and really do merit our applause - though I still wouldn't go near the soundtrack album, if I were you.

(MovieMail, March 2016)

Marguerite screens on BBC2 at 12.55am tonight.

No comments:

Post a Comment