Who hasn’t dreamed about standing on a concert stage singing to an enthusiastic and packed auditorium? Only a talented few, however, have the voice, presence, and interpretive skills that will bring an audience to its feet and result in thunderous applause. Unless…
Marguerite Dumont is a socialite with more money than singing ability. This French film with subtitles is based on the true life story of Florence Foster Jenkins who was similarly talent challenged. (Stephen Frears’s film, which will star Meryl Streep as Jenkins will be released in May.) The plot takes a page from “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” with everyone around Marguerite (Catherine Frot, who won a César for her performance) afraid to tell her that she can’t sing. At the top of the list is Marguerite’s husband, Georges (André Marcon), who needs her money to keep his failing business afloat. Just attending her performances, even when they are staged in their home, is too painful so he frequently invents car trouble to arrive late.
The situation, however, is about to get complicated. A young journalist, Lucien (Sylvain Dieuaide) and one of his anarchist friends, Kyril (Aubert Fenoy) climb over the Dumont mansion walls to sneak into one of Marguerite’s concerts. The event is billed as a fund raiser for war orphans. (The film is set in 1921, in the aftermath of World War One). The elegantly dressed audience can barely hide laughter when Marguerite begins shrieking several arias. During one she sings with Hazel (Christa Théret), a truly talented young soprano. Lucien, while flirting with Hazel, decides to have some fun with Marguerite. He writes a review titled “The Ophan’s Voice,” and while not specifically a rave, bolsters Marguerite’s determination to keep working on her operatic career.
Also encouraging Marguerite to continue is her butler, Madelbos (Denis Mpunga). While he seems protective of Marguerite, he also has a motive. He hopes that all the photographs he takes of her in costumes will one day be worth a great deal of money. He’s a brooding presence and when the camera focuses on his eye through the camera lens appears truly sinister.
Marguerite has her sights set on a big concert in a big hall. She’s convinced to train with a voice teacher, Atos Pezzini (Michel Fau), whose career is on the wane and, like so many around Marguerite, needs money. Although he’s appalled by her voice, as well as by his decision to trade what’s left of his integrity for cash, he stays the course.
The character of Marguerite could easily have become annoying. And truly, the shrieking is, at times, hard to take. Yet Frot’s Marguerite is not a preening diva, but a woman following her dream, albeit a goal that will always remain out of reach. She’s kind and considerate to those around her and even Lucien, who sets out to exploit her, becomes one of her supporters. Georges, too, in the end tries to shield Marguerite from learning the truth about her singing. For him, it’s no longer about the money, and all about protecting her. When Marguerite finally steps on that stage, like the audience in the film, we hold our breath, hoping for a miracle.
Marguerite opens nationwide Friday, March 25, 2016.