Arts & Events

Marguerite: Hold Your Ears and Open Your Heart

Gar Smith
Friday April 01, 2016 - 01:52:00 PM

Opens April 1 at the Albany Twin

April is shaping up to be Music Month on the big screen with biopics about Miles Davis (Don Cheadle starring in and directing Miles Ahead), Hank Williams (I Saw the Light), and The Winding Stream: The Carters, The Cashes and the Course of Country Music.

And then there is Marguerite, a heart-rending—and eardrum-rending—send-up of French baroness Marguerite Dumont—an astonishingly tone-deaf music lover and would-be diva.

Of necessity, the film begins with that familiar statement: "Based on a true story."

This imprint is necessary because the story otherwise might not seem credible.

The film takes place in the 1920s, mostly at the palatial Dumont mansion located outside Paris. Marguerite is a baroness by virtue of her marriage to George Dumont (Andre Marcon), a dogged but distracted government official. An extremely wealthy woman who loves all things operatic, Marguerite is known for sponsoring elaborate musical performances to entertain well-heeled society swells in her stately mansion. And she also delights in serenading the crowds herself. But there is a problem: one that Marguerite's friends are either too kind—or too mean— to point out. Mme. Dumont cannot carry a tune. 


That may be putting too fine a point on it. The truth is, Marguerite is tone-deaf to the point of cringing discomfort. She doesn't just sing out of tune—she screeches. And—sadly and touchingly—she honestly believes her vocal performance is impeccable. Apparently having a great deal of money, buys a great deal of sympathy and/or accommodation. (As an ironic tonal counterpoint, director Xavier Giannoli enriches his cast with a pet peacock named Caruso, whose Marguerite-like screeching echoes in the background throughout the entire proceedings.) 

It becomes clear pretty soon, why this film was nominated for no less than 11 Cesars—the French equivalent of the Oscar. The scenery, costumes, set decorations sound, direction, screenplay and cinematography are exemplary. As are the supporting actors under Giannoli's deft direction. But the major gift to the audiences that seek out this entertaining film is the lead actress, Catherine Frot. 

In a tale fraught with emotional peaks, Frot grows increasingly adorable in her full-throated (if ill-advised) enthusiasm for belting out opera classics—and beating them bloody. 

The beauty part is that Mme. Dumont is not at all vainglorious. Despite being a wealthy doyen surrounded by fawning friends and servants, Marguerite remains a sweet and simple soul who radiates enthusiasm and longing. She would be happier if her husband was a bit more doting but this is a time between world wars and, as husband George reminds her, he is a bit preoccupied with "trying to rebuild the northern half of France." 

The plot turns on the cynical intervention of a couple of young outliers who are so bemused by Mme. Dumont's performance that they conspire to pull an elaborate prank on her—by planting a positive review in a major newspaper. 

Poor Margaret is soon emboldened to leave the small stage at her sprawling mansion and set foot on a public stage before an audience of unsuspecting strangers. Along the way, her dream is abetted by an ever-growing circle of disreputable enablers. In addition to the brooding presence of her judgmental-yet-protective manservant Madelbos (a complex and evolving character portrayed by Denis Mpunga), Marguerite finds herself engaging with a pack of young anarchists, a bearded lady and a gay, over-the-hill baritone named Pezzini (played by the super-sized, screen-filling comedian Michel Fau). 

The suspense builds toward an inevitable and excruciating climax. What will happen when Marguerite, for the first time, clears her throat to entertain an opera house filled with unsuspecting music lovers? 

It is like waiting for a (musical) bomb to go off. 

This review will not reveal what happens, except to note that something miraculous occurs. But only briefly. 

The last act of Maguerite may leave the audience struggling. Madame Dumont has been such a pleasure to get to know that it is sad beyond belief to say goodbye. 

Postscript: Marguerite was based on a real-life American named Florence Foster Jenkins. She was very wealthy, much devoted to classical music, an excellent piano player, and a God-awful singer. 

Director Giannoli happened across recording of Jenkins singing before an audience at Carnegie Hall in the 1940s. "On the cover of the record, there is a photo of her wearing angels wings and a diamond tiara," Giannoli recalls. "She is smiling at the camera and she looks so naïve, yet at the same time very confident . . . . She was used to singing to the same people in the same social circles and no one had ever dared tell her that she sang out of tune . . . . Either they were hypocrites, or they were interested in her money, or they were simply cowards. It's an amusing story, but it also exposes a cruel side to human nature that I wanted to explore." 

It is a peculiar kind of cruelty—a form of bullying that takes the form of suppressed giggles, knowing smirks, and rolling eyes—that leaves the victim of the silent judgment blissfully unaware of the humiliation. 

In an odd quirk of timing, another film based on the story of Florence Foster Jenkins is also set to be released this year with Meryl Streep in the starring role. Here is the trailer. 


And, finally, there is a short 2008 documentary on the real Florence Foster Jenkins that you can watch on YouTube. 

Florence Foster Jenkins: A World Of Her Own tells "the uncensored and tragic life story of Florence Foster Jenkins. In spite of disease and delusion, she became a performing arts icon of the 20th century." 

It was written, produced and narrated by Donald Collup.