Thursday, April 7, 2016

The unkindness of others

It’s hard to know whether to laugh, be amazed, saddened or even depressed by the story that unfolds in the more than two-hour long Marguerite (opening Friday at the Main Art Theatre), directed by France’s Xavier Giannoli. Actually, if you’re like me, you’ll experience all of the above. But perhaps I’m more saddened than anything. This is a story, based on true events, of a woman in the 1920s, of some means and influence, who successfully created a minor career for herself as an opera singer. Yet it was totally based on delusion. In this case the character is Marguerite Dumont (Catherine Frot). But almost a century ago in the salons of New York it was Florence Foster Jenkins (soon to be played by Meryl Streep), who made it all the way to Carnegie Hall before she was confronted with the truth of her woefully inadequate performance and died a month later after suffering a heart attack. In both stories we have the case of a woman who, for rather unknown reasons, has a highly inflated opinion about her singing abilities. Marguerite is obsessed with opera and the classics, so much so that she collects elaborate props and has more than 1000 musical scores including one with notes by Puccini, she is happy to point out. She performs in private concerts among the wealthy elite where politesse rules the day. Not even her husband Georges (André Marcon) has the courage to confront her, as her middling career starts to take a trajectory upwards. While bourgeois society smiles indulgently with some retiring to the next room, our star is launched into the big time, if you will, at the mocking hands of a journalist and cartoonist. The cartoonist, Kyrill (Aubert Fenoy), is a Dadaist, an art movement that essentially wanted to overthrow all prevailing institutions by mocking them absurdly. Kyrill, seeing Marguerite’s off key singing as a perfect way to undermine the national anthem, has her sing La Marseillaise in a bohemian club. Marguerite, of course, has no idea she is being set up, and is expelled from her socialite arts society. But her career rise continues. Her cynical Dadaist friends hire a failing opera star, Atos Pezzini (Michel Fau), as a voice coach, and a public concert is scheduled with her solely on the bill. Throughout it all no one confronts Marguerite about how truly awful her singing is, allowing her to, shall we say, fail upwards. Frot is terrific as the lead character, winning best actress at France’s Césars. She balances just the right amount of charm, innocence and delusion – was it extreme eccentricism or a mental disorder? – as she tips the scales on notes of such classic arias as Mozart’s Queen of the Night, Delibes’s The Flower Duet and Bellini’s Casta Diva. (Partly it’s Frot’s own voice – she took lessons!). You will crack smiles but there’s also something rather disturbing about this story, and I guess it has to do with the cruelty of others. All this film’s performances are excellent, as are the costumes and sets that create a kind of French version of Downton Abbey. And the film’s depiction of Parisian avant-garde cafe culture is the best I have ever seen.

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