sat 18/01/2020

Marguerite | reviews, news & interviews

Marguerite

Marguerite

Touching Gallic transposing of American story of bad art humanly redeemed

Catherine Frot as Marguerite Dumont: 'Tread softly because you tread on my dreams'

You may never have heard of Florence Foster Jenkins, although she has definitely earned a certain renown among music-lovers. For all the wrong reasons: the American soprano, who performed at private recitals in the early decades of the last century, before a climactic Carnegie Hall appearance a month before her death in 1944, was famous for the sheer awfulness of her voice.

More a phenomenon than an artist, she was certainly a paradox: her dedication to classical music was all-consuming, as total as her inability to perceive that she had none of the technical accomplishment required to perform even as an amateur. Yet her position in upper-crust New York society, combined with her considerable wealth, meant that the audiences at the charity concerts which she assiduously supported seem to have rarely expressed their incredulity at her abysmal lack of talent. It must have been a kind of “Emperor’s New Clothes” illusion that was shattered only at her Carnegie Hall recital to which the public was admitted (that appearance, it has to be said, was a sell-out).

Giannoli handles the expected set-piece denouement with traditional aplomb

Is she to be treated as a figure of fun, to be laughed at rather cruelly, as part of that New York audience did – or as an object of almost tragic pity, for the fact that she increasingly seems to have lived in a parallel reality, “A World of Her Own” as one earlier film treatment put it? The various dramatic treatments of her life, most recently Peter Quilter’s Glorious!, which played in the West End a decade ago with Maureen Lipman in the lead role, seem to have veered towards the comic. The next treatment of the Florence Foster Jenkins story, which will certainly make her name much more widely known, comes in May with the release of Stephen Frears’ eponymously titled film, with Meryl Streep in the title role.

Beating that one to the barre, and transposing its story convincingly to post-World War I France, comes Xavier Giannoli’s Marguerite (its sumptuous exteriors filmed in the Czech Republic have travelled no less effortlessly). The director’s own adaptation of the original story works beautifully in its new context, its combination of comedy and costume drama developing a distinctly Gallic tradition. We’ll have to wait to see what Streep comes up with, but Catherine Frot excels as the titular Marguerite Dumont here, the slight eccentricity of her features matching the decided strangeness of her character. She’s no beauty, though her face retains a youthful, occasionally almost gamine quality: there's an almost ageless quality to it, an equivalence to childhood fitting for one who seems unaware of – or unable to assimilate – the consequences of her actions. She has real, albeit largely unspoken vulnerability.

Giannoli has given his heroine a husband, Georges (Andre Marcon, pictured above), who has finely honed his tactic of missing his wife's recitals by staging motorcar breakdowns as he drives to them. (In real life, Foster Jenkins’s marriage was very brief, disrupted not least by the fact that she contracted syphilis from her spouse, a factor that may have contributed to her increasing strangeness). Thus Marguerite is left to appear at the opening charity recital at her lavish chateau with only the support of her dedicated butler, Madelbos (Denis Mpunga, with Catherine Frot, main picture), who combines roles as pianist, chauffeur, and her main pillar of support (the story will reveal that he has an agenda of his own, no less stagey in its own way).

The concert follows a familiar scenario: Marguerite murders an aria from The Magic Flute, her performance feted yet again by applause. New to the proceedings – and new additions in Giannoli’s treatment, we assume – are Hazel (Christa Theret), a sympathetic young mezzo-soprano brought in to perform, and the somewhat unlikely pairing of the young music critic Lucien (Sylvain Dieuaide) and avant-garde poet-performer Kyrill (Aubrey Fenoy, the trio pictured together below left), who have scaled the garden walls to gatecrash proceedings.

As a subplot in their own right – one which alludes to competing attitudes to contemporary music, as well as hinting at romantic rivalries – this trio is barely developed by Giannoli, but Lucien’s review of the occasion (“human truth that rends the heart”, exactly the kind of barbedly ambiguous response that was typical) sees Marguerite become more closely involved in their company, via Kyrill’s cringe-making Dadaist event in which she wails the Marseillaise to an outraged audience.

But her contact with Lucien develops more sympathetically, although its final destination – a full-scale solo recital for Marguerite that will be open to the public – looks a dangerous one. Lucien’s changing reaction to her – “one grows fond” – somehow matches our own feelings, while the sheer business of her preparation, studying with a professional voice coach (the parodically self-regarding Michel Fau, complete with his own attending entourage), has a comic energy which pushes the action along.

In the process the script's attention falls on Marguerite’s relationship (or lack thereof) with her husband: Georges married her for her money (while assuming she married him for his title), and has long found consolation with a mistress. Yet his refusal to countenance her planned performance changes from the wish to avoid embarrassment for himself to a concern for the damage the reaction of an unfiltered audience might cause her.

Most poignantly, we come to feel that it has been Marguerite’s long-ignored need for love that has contributed at least in part to her behaviour. Giannoli handles the expected set-piece denouement with traditional aplomb – he even throws in a single, wholly theatrical touch that for a moment confounds us – before playing out his drama, now shading towards tragedy, in a final coda. You could choose an epitaph from the poets: either “Tread softly because you tread on my dreams” from Yeats, or Eliot’s “Humankind cannot bear very much reality" would fit equally well. That we’re talking poetry here at all confirms that Giannoli’s film has gone well beyond its potentially more formulaic origins, to reveal a human truth that really does, for a moment, come cose to the heart.

Is she to be treated as a figure of fun, to be laughed at rather cruelly, or as an object of almost tragic pity?

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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