The full name of the title character in “Marguerite” is Marguerite Dumont, and surely that reference to Margaret Dumont, the actress who played stuffy grande dames in all those classic Marx Brothers comedies, means we’re meant to laugh at her. But writer-director Xavier Giannoli has a different take on this baroness who believes herself to be a great opera singer and who — to put it charitably — isn’t. He cherishes her.
The movie is a fictionalized French gloss on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York socialite of the early 20th century known then and now for her painfully bad singing voice. Jenkins was convinced she had talent and hosted regular private concerts; audiences, unbeknownst to her, would attend for the sheer comedy of her ineptitude, stuffing handkerchiefs in mouths to keep from laughing out loud. (See? They had irony back then.) Only at the very end of her life, at a 1944 Carnegie Hall concert to which the press was invited, did Foster learn what people actually thought of her singing; she was devastated and, a month later, dead.
A full-on biopic has been made with Meryl Streep as Jenkins and awaits US release (it opens in England in May). Until that arrives, we have Giannoli’s lavish, overcrowded make-believe version, with French actress Catherine Frot (”Haute Cuisine”) adorable and unexpectedly moving as the deluded heroine. Marguerite has enough rank, wealth, and social standing to compel the 1 percenters of 1920s Paris to attend her charity concerts (even if some of them remain drinking heavily at the bar), but she’s unaware that young avant-gardists and other artistic bomb-throwers are starting to pay attention as well. Simply put, Marguerite’s singing is so awful as to command a kind of awe.
“She’s perfectly wild . . . divinely off-key,” burbles Kyril (Aubert Fenoy), a monocled dandy with Dadaist tendencies, but his friend Lucien (Sylvain Dieuaide), an equally arch critic, notices the loneliness in Marguerite’s eyes. Underneath the grandeur, she’s a neglected wife, with a husband, Georges (Andre Marcon), who’s mortified by her pretensions and is having an affair with her best friend, (Astrid Whettnall), to boot.
The youngsters flatter Marguerite into performing at a Surrealist revue guaranteed to offend the bourgeois and get her kicked out of her upper-class music club. Then they convince her to mount a public concert and to prepare for it by taking voice lessons with a down-at-his-heels opera singer (Michel Fau, camping it up). It’s all a rich joke to everyone but Marguerite, and eventually the joke begins to pall, because how long can you laugh at a kind, sincere woman whose detachment from reality is so complete?
On one level, “Marguerite” is about a ruined post-World War I Europe learning to feel again through the example of a woman convinced of beauty where there is none. On another, it’s about a husband choosing to love his wife for who she is rather than what he wants her to be. On a third, it’s about the power and limits of belief. On a fourth, it’s a portrait of a madwoman. On a fifth, of an angel.
That’s too many levels, and there are too many characters running up and down the movie’s escalators. Lucien, the young critic who early on seems to be an audience surrogate, disappears for large patches, as does the talented young singer (Christa Theret) he silently loves. And what are we to make of Marguerite’s butler Madelbos, (Denis Mpunga), a formidable hulk who photographs her in operatic costumes, protects her from rude headlines, and generally enables her insanity? Is he a variant on Erich von Stroheim in “Sunset Boulevard,” forever preparing his mistress for her close-up? Or is he something more demonic?
Beats me. Expertly produced and constantly awhirl, “Marguerite” strives for ambiguity and settles for a muddle. It piles too much on its serving plate, and at 129 minutes it’s definitely overlong. But it has Frot, an actress with the wise, patient eyes of a cat, and she invests Marguerite with the multiple meanings the rest of the film elegantly fumbles. Someone here observes that “the sublime and the ridiculous are never far apart.” In Frot’s Marguerite, they’re one and the same.
Directed by Xavier Giannoli. Written by Giannoli and Marcia Romano. Starring Catherine Frot, Andre Marcon, Sylvain Dieuaide. Kendall Square. 129 minutes. R (brief graphic nudity, a scene of drug use). In French, with subtitles.