The twin films phenomenon strikes again. This year sees the release of two movies based on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins, a notoriously bad amateur opera singer from the early 20th century. One film is a British-American biopic starring Meryl Streep; the other a French drama called Marguerite.
Set in 1920s Paris, Marguerite is the fictionalised tale of a wealthy socialite played by Catherine Frot. Marguerite is devoted to the opera and determined to succeed as a soprano. The trouble is, she’s terrible. So terrible she makes Céline Dion sound like Dionne Warwick. Worse still, no one dares tell her that she’s so awful she belongs on Eurovision. They just humour her. A bit like when Scarlett Johansson recorded an album of Tom Waits covers.
It takes real skill to sing this badly, and Frot’s subtle leading turn ensures that we only laugh at the performance and never the person. She’s ably supported by Denis Mpunga, Sylvain Dieuaide and Michel Fau as Marguerite’s opera coach, a bit like the way Yves Montand employs celebrity teachers in Let’s Make Love. Ultimately, they’re both acting out of passion. But he’s trying to deceive a woman; the only deception in Marguerite is her own.
Like Anvil! The Story of Anvil, the film asks whether some dreams are best abandoned. Does it matter that Marguerite is deluded, when singing brings her so much joy? Should her friends and family lie to protect her, or will that do more harm than good? Does money entitle anyone to pursue a misguided music career, or just Paris Hilton? Writer/director Xavier Giannoli raises all these questions, in a way that’s both touchingly tragic and deftly comic.
While the movie could use some editing (Christa Théret’s sub-plot could be jettisoned entirely) and better translated subtitles, it probably doesn’t warrant a Hollywood version. This is a rich, poignant and elegant film, whose ideas resonate like an aria; love is about honesty, celebrity is about exploitation and you can’t let famous people get away with whatever they like just because they’re rich. That’s how you end up with Gwyneth Paltrow.