Marguerite, both the film and its titular character, revel in their theatric and garish setting. Set in 1920’s Paris, with a story circling both aristocracy and arty would-be revolutionaries, Marguerite appears on paper to be a well-targeted dramedy for theatre-loving audiences to indulge in. Sadly, it’s writer/director Xavier Giannoli who does the indulging, diluting a delicate and potentially moving premise across a laborious running time, and opting for style over substance in the story’s most critical moments.
Loosely inspired by the life of American socialite and amateur soprano Florence Foster Jenkins (who coincidentally is the subject of a soon-to-be released film staring Meryl Streep), Marguerite Dumont (Catherine Frot) is a wealthy and kind-hearted dreamer. Obsessed with opera, she surrounds her home with props and costumes, spends her days constructing elaborate photos of her as various characters, and arranges lavish recitals for charity in her home, often performing herself to the applause of all her guests and loved ones. And it’s this problematic praise that complicates things so.
People clap out of kindness, out of gratitude and out of love, but never out of appreciation. Despite dedicating every waking moment to her love of opera, Marguerite is beyond terrible, possessing an unbearable lack of talent and self-awareness, made exponentially worse by her unbound enthusiasm. It’s a white lie that has grown cancerous, leaving her friends to take pity on her and her husband Georges (André Marcon) alienated and embarrassed. It is at least a manageable problem until journalist Lucien (Sylvain Dieuaide) catches a performance and (moved by her passion despite her atrocious singing) writes a glowing, if carefully worded review. To Marguerite it’s the break she’s longed for, to Georges it’s a time-bomb, to others it’s an opportunity for exploitation, but to most, it’s the setup for a fascinating and cruel joke on a sweet and innocent woman.
It’s perhaps a little too apt how often Marguerite alludes to Pagliacci, as it’s the film’s greatest asset how well it balances the inherent comedy and tragedy of its lead. With every tiny step Marguerite takes toward her dream she swells with joy, infecting you with an appreciative warmth that swiftly churns in your stomach to a sickly unease as you contemplate her inevitable revelation. It feels like you’re lying to a child, protecting their innocence by casually betraying their trust. But despite these tender and complicated emotions, you can’t help but laugh whenever you watch this thing destined to wreck her surprise some ill-prepared witness, as they go from anticipation to confusion and creatively craft feedback to spare her feelings. It’s a conceit that all too easily evokes a reaction from the audience; you care greatly for the protagonist, but you’re also doing the same thing you want to protect her from.
As much as it can stir up some emotion, the film doesn’t really introduce anything of substance beyond its introductory act, it simply finds ways to either escalate or re-explore the same theme. There are entertaining moments sprinkled throughout, but the 2-hour running time becomes a chore, made even more arduous by kitschy, art-house asides. To be fair, Marguerite is a character study and these indulgences are diegetic enough to fall on the right side of pretention. But they aren’t really necessary and they’re certainly not entertaining, which leaves us with a lot of material that could have happily found a home on the cutting room floor.
As we get deeper into the film it becomes painfully evident Giannoli is writing himself into a box, juggling the same themes over and over and dangling the inescapable conclusion in front of the audience’s face. So long as it came together in the end, the lovable lead and morbid need to see her exposed would have been enough to mitigate the effects of the punishing pace and repetitious plot. Unfortunately, the final act proves Giannoli’s greatest error, opting for grandeur and spectacle at the cost of something that could have been beautiful and tender. While the introduction of a few new wrinkles and a welcome shift in some of the supporting cast add some much-needed momentum to the film’s closing chapters, Marguerite’s punchline recoils from a more difficult and rewarding conclusion and simply looks for an opportunity that feels dramatic enough to drop the curtains on. One could argue it’s an ending that fits Marguerite’s deluded perspective, but it’s the filmmaker’s job to explore the reality of their story – regardless of whether their protagonist is prepared to.
At the very least, Frot’s Marguerite is a loving and engaging creation. Everything the film makes you feel is a result of your attachment to its protagonist. She hasn’t a cruel bone in her body, thanking everyone and enjoying her newfound attention like an innocent child finally getting the love and admiration she was starved for. A loneliness hangs over her very being, but she buries it deep down and hides it beneath her passion. Most heart-breaking is just how much she cares for her husband, who’s become so alienated by her eccentricities he can no longer see her as an adult let alone his wife. While at first Macron’s philandering and absent spouse seems poised to be an antagonist, holding her back from her dream as he betrays her behind closed doors, he proves a much more sympathetic character, put into an impossible position as the only person who ever has to deal with her intrinsic tragedy in any real way.
There’s great material here, but unfortunately just not (in this case) enough to warrant a 2-hour film. The cast is admirable and the core premise elicits both laughter and sorrow from its audience, but the film is so overstuffed with golden-age decadence and monotonous repetition of the same points its tender complexities start to fall by the wayside. Marguerite proves a lovable and interesting character, but a regrettably forgettable movie.
THE REEL SCORE: 6/10