Marguerite is an entertaining and at times moving tragicomedy that works well as a character study, but is blurred in its thematic focus and overlong.
Some wit once declared the mediocre artist “God’s cruellest joke.” Would-be opera singer Marguerite Dumont (Catherine Frot) is worse than mediocre. She sings catastrophically off-note and has no idea how dire she sounds because no one has the heart to tell her. Yet, while her screechings and warblings are so awful as to cast her as a figure of fun, as the film progresses she emerges as a tragic and endearing character undeserving of ridicule.
There are several reasons we take to her as a person. Firstly, her obsession with opera is borne of a love of music and performance – she is a creature of culture, not ego. Secondly, her commitment to self-improvement inspires respect: she is devoted to her art, practising hours daily. Her husband George’s (André Marcon) lack of support for her singing, while understandable, also arouses our sympathy for her, which is compounded when we learn that he is having an affair with one of her friends.
The suggestion is made by her enigmatic valet Madelbos (Denis Mpunga) that her immersion in opera is a way of compensating for the affection and attention that is lacking in her marriage, but this doesn’t ring psychologically true of her. It is telling that the point is articulated by a character, rather than the viewer entrusted to pick it up in the course of the drama. It’s as if this (unnecessary) justification of Marguerite’s opera obsession has been added as an afterthought.
Perhaps her most endearing quality is her ingenuousness. She is oblivious to the possibility that people are humouring her in treating her as a diva. This is not down to stupidity or self-absorption. She simply does not relate to such behaviour and is therefore blind to it.
When a cynical young music critic publishes a send-up review of one of her home charity evening performances, describing her singing as “like trying to exorcise a demon”, she misses his irony and her dreams of singing before a wider public take flight. The critic and his anarchist friend exploit her trusting nature, arranging for her to sing the French national anthem on stage, intending that her godawful performance will be interpreted as a parody and outrage the post-WW1 bourgeois audience. Their objective is realised.
Unperturbed and forgiving, she accepts the apologies of her genuinely remorseful exploiters, but her dreams have now morphed into delusion. Aiming to perform “on a real stage before real people” (much to her husband’s dismay), she hires a once-acclaimed but now washed-up tenor as a tutor (Michel Fau), paying him handsomely to take on the impossible task of training her to professional standard. He takes full advantage of her generosity, bringing with him an entourage of bohemian hangers-on to freeload on her gravy train.
It seems that everyone is out to take their bit of Marguerite, but in the process, many of her detractors become fond of her. Despite her vocal deficiencies, Catherine Frot gives her a grace, a belief in her art and a purity of spirit that is irresistible, eliciting benevolence in all but the worst of leaches (one of whom lurks in her inner domestic circles, masquerading as supremely loyal but seeking to use her to his own artistic ends in a most contemptible way).
As a character study the film works pretty well, largely due to Frot’s superb work. She is well supported by an excellent cast. However, the piece is overlong and a bit of a sprawler. Some sharpening of thematic focus might have resulted in a tighter, more emotionally potent film.
In the end, the purpose of the film is not quite clear. It raises questions about exploitation of the artist, the all-consuming life-sacrificing demands of art and whether the price is worth paying, the parasitic nature of art itself, the value and potential dangers of dreams…
But it’s a line of Marguerite’s that bears most thinking about: she asserts that dreaming is a legitimate alternative to accomplishment. It’s a view that is unsettling in that it is a seductive and comforting notion on one hand, yet a rationalisation that feels wrong and even mad on the other. At the core of Marguerite’s tragedy is that she fails to reconcile both positions. But oh how she tries, and that is her great redeeming quality.
Movie website: http://cohenmedia.net/films/marguerite
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