Marguerite (Catherine Frot) floats on a suspended cloud of feigned confidence. Being an affluent socialite is one thing, she assumes, but being a student of music is quite another. She is perhaps in the twilight of her fifties, diminutive, proud, and emboldened by a welling naivete in her eyes that may remind you of Lillian Gish. In her free time, Marguerite brandishes ornate breastplates, wears more soot on her lashes than Louise Brooks, and poses in theatrically daring positions for photographs. Meanwhile, in the courtyard of her pastoral estate, ostriches are brushed with the kind of banal care a show dog might see. Poor Marguerite, for all of her riches, is painfully aloof.
Within the contained walls of her home, our tone-deaf mondaine gathers together elite members of high-society to hear her belt out operatic renditions of revered classics – the caveat, of course, is that her chin is raised higher than the shrill baying of her warbling voice. Aside from the muted swell of repressed agony, nobody reveals to Marguerite that her vibrato sounds like the shrieking of a ship’s hull when being chafed by an iceberg. Our guileless heroine is kept safe from the the outside world by her doting and obsequious servant, Madelbos (Denis Mpunga). With his hulking frame and calculated concern, he manages to assist Marguerite circumvent the tumultuous waters of reality – he is both a caretaker and a friend. Our protagonist’s husband is a different animal: servile but somewhat contemptuous, he tells his mistress, “[my wife] can buy my title, but she cant buy me.” Much like Madelbos, he is an enabler – the only difference is that he begrudgingly resigns to the aforementioned duties.
At one particular performance, Marguerite draws the eye of two sardonic friends. They revel in the immodesty and strangeness of our socialite’s voice. They are raucously, even glibly, facetious in their celebration of their hostess’ proud theatrics. “Wildly off-key!”, one of them jests. “Sublimely off-key!”, another exclaims. They see profit in the discord. Profit in Marguerite’s miniature, empathetic, and hopelessly-puzzled expression. And so it goes.
At times, director Xavier Giannoli’s version of 1920s France sometimes feels nuanced and lived-in, while other times it feels as unintentionally contemporary as a community college stage play, or a My Chemical Romance period-based music video (the suits look rented from a distinguished costume store). Still, Giannoli’s carbonated direction is both beautifully melancholy and insidiously comic. Catherine Frot is mesmerizing in her perceptively caring portrayal of Marguerite: she understands that her character is removed of pragmatism. Marguerite is a spinning top that whirls, without self-propulsion, until she runs out of fingers to twirl her. The madness of encouragement in the face of defeat. While there is no shortage of films about stage-and-sanity, this film is essential for its cast (Catherine Frot and Michel Fau are amazing). “Marguerite” – now playing at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinemas – works wonders, even when stymied by the occasional aesthetic hiccup.