This French spoken film premiered in various national cinemas this week. Based on a true story, it is at times hilarious, moving, upsetting – like many a great opera. Like many of us, Marguerite has a dream: she wants to become a great opera diva.
Like a real opera, this film shows her life-story in several acts. These acts, which also comment upon the drama taking place, show up as in early movies. For this story takes place in France just after the First World War, where Charlie Chaplin is already a well-known name.
The first “act” opens, with a student arriving late at a gate. She has no invitation and is told off by the stern butler for being late. She is not a guest, but one of the many musicians and singers who are to perform during a charity feast for war victims.
At the same time, two youths a “modern artist” and a music reviewer cum journalist, climb over the wall of the aristocratic property to gate-crash the same charity feast. They want to know more about the mysterious Marguerite. Marguerite is a bit of a mystery, but seriously rich. Later, her husband mentions she bought his aristocratic title.
The horrid shrieks of peacocks can be heard throughout the film, but especially while Marguerite prepares for her performance at this charity feast. She waits for her husband to turn up. When the audience finally sees her, she wears a peacock feather in her hair.
The film switches to a scene in the countryside: a man driving an early 20th century racing car pulls up at a cross, a large tree, a kind of Menhir. This crossroad will reappear at crucial moments in the film. The man waits, checking his watch, to ensure he will arrive at his chateau at the end of the charity performance. It is Marguerite’s husband, who has fled his chateau for good reasons.
A few scenes into the first act and everybody knows why. Marguerite and her husband live in “polite society” and it hypocritically feigns, keeps up appearances, dodges truth and reality. So nobody ever bothered to tell Marguerite she simply cannot sing.
She believes she has great talent and due to an unhappy marriage, invests all in her great dream. She not only collects original music scores used by the great opera composers. She also collects original costumes and has her picture taken in great opera “roles”, by the butler.
The couple’s butler is actively fostering Marguerite’s dream for financial reasons. The journalist and would-be anarchist artist also realise, they can make serious money by using Marguerite. She is not totally duped by al the “leeches” in her life, but kind-heartedly starts to help various artists.
In the last act, a combination of science, psychiatry and medicines shatter art, fantasy, creativity – and Marguerite’s dream. When she is confronted with reality, this results in the usual tragic scene with which all great operas end. Which is doubly tragic, as all Marguerite actually craved was the admiration and love of her husband, who realises too late he does love her as she is.
The cast is brilliant. One really loves the bubbly and simple Marguerite as portrayed by Catherine Froth. Butler Mandelbos, played by Denis Mpunga, is really an interesting anti-hero. André Marcon plays a convincing husband: happy his wife has some outlet so he can have his affairs and in the end realising too late, what she means to him. Throughout the film, there are plenty hilarious and absurd scenes which ensure laughter. Yet the mirror it holds up to its audience shows an uncomfortable reality.
The real story behind the film is slightly more cruel. The rich heiress who dreamt of becoming an opera star was the American Florence Foster Jenkins. Against her family’s wishes, she eloped with a doctor. The short marriage ended in divorce. She not only inherited large fortunes but also married again: her music teacher. She did give recitals to groups of friends and gave a performance at the Carnegie Hall.
Her public found her highly entertaining as – like the Marguerite in the French film – she simply could not sing. For whatever talents and voice she may have had as a singer, were destroyed by side-effects from the syphilis her first husband gave her. A few of the costumes in this French film are based on costumes she wore during her recitals.
If you still think this French version of “Marguerite”, with its excellent cast and acting, may not be your cup of tea … and moreover, are a fan of Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant … You may prefer to give this interesting, moving, serious, yet highly entertaining French version a miss and wait for next year’s Hollywood remake, retake, reinterpretation of Florence’s life.
“Marguerite”, released September 2015 in France, now shown in various cinemas throughout Europe
Director – Xavier Giannolli
Script – Xavier Gianolli and Marcia Romano
Marguerite – Catherine Frot
Georges – André Marcon
Mandelbos – Denis Mpunga
Youtube trailer Marguerite
Youtube an excerpt of Florence Jenkins performing “Holle Rache” by Mozart (you have been warned!)