In a memorable scene in Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane,” Kane has forced his mistress and second wife, Susan Alexander, to take singing lessons and become an opera singer, in order to justify his bringing her into his life. But she has no voice, and as she screeches for a high note in Rossini’s “Una voce poco sa” and her coach tears his hair in frustration the audience both cringes and laughs. More evidence that this mad journalist, a master of illusion, is a hollow shell.
As Welles’s masterpiece is an interpretive biography of William Randolph Hearst, Xavier Giannoli’s “Marguerite” is inspired by the career of an American turn-of-the-century singer Florence Foster Jenkins, an East Coast society woman with a bad voice who bankrolled her own career right up to a climactic concert in Carnegie Hall (check her out on YouTube). Furthermore, Mr. Giannole has named her Marguerite Dumont (played by Catherine Frot), and it is hard to escape the allusion to the towering foil of the Marx Brothers, Margaret Dumont, the rich, pompous unwitting butt of Groucho’s wit.
But where Mr. Giannoli may have mined comedy for his inspiration, this film—contrary to some critical reactions—not a comedy but a social criticism that skewers French upper-class society right after the First World War. Like “Downton Abbey,” the plot is moved by broken and unbroken romances, interaction with the servant class in which some servants get the upper hand; but while the “Downton” cast is often motivated by compassion and integrity, their French counterparts are overwhelmingly greedy and spineless.
The curtain rises on the magnificent Dumont estate where a professional orchestra and chorus will perform a Mozart charity concert for war orphans to the swarm of wealthy socialites who pour into the house in formal attire. A young soprano Hazel (Christa Theret) arrives to sing a part in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”; a pair of troublemakers—handsome newspaper music critic Lucien Beaumont (Sylvain Dieuaide) and his radical sidekick Kril Von Priest (Aubert Fenoy)—jump the wall and snoop the corridors of the chateau; the hulking African chauffeur Madelbos (Denis Mpunga) sees all and covers for Marguerite’s husband George (Andre Marcon), who will not arrive home in time to hear his wife’s performance.
Finally, when the real musicians have performed splendidly, the hostess Marguerite arrives, groomed to bring the event to its climax. The audience reaction in both the film and in the movie theater is shock; she is flat, off-key, her C above middle C is barely a B-flat. The audience has been well fed and they have raised the money for the charity; they swallow their convictions. George has arrived in time to miss the performance, his car, he reports, had broken down. But we have watched him pull off the road and check his watch until he feels safe. Rule number one of their relationship has been that he cannot and will not tell his wife she cannot sing. It’s her estate and her money; he dare not risk losing it by telling the truth. Especially when the truth would include his mistress on the side.
The music critic writes an ambiguous but favorable review, and his buddy invites her to sing the “Marseillaise” in his left-wing café. But, during the wild party of the evening, he fools her by projecting films of World War I battle scenes on her white costume. Word spreads to their upper-class music-clubbing peers, and the Dumonts are ostracized. But they recoup. Rather than face the reality of Marguerite’s terrible voice they hire a team of Bohemians—a gay, obese, over-the-hill opera singer, as her coach plus his young lover, a bearded lady and deaf pianist—to transform Marguerite into a star and finally, like Florence Foster Jenkins, present her to a packed concert hall.
The plan fails. She collapses at the concert and is hospitalized. Her doctor is convinced that she must be shocked out of her dream world, and devises a strategy that will force her to face reality. Suddenly George, who has steadfastly kept his wife in the dark about her true self is faced with the terrible decision. Fundamentally, Marguerite is a very lonely woman who, all through their married life, has presented herself as a singer because she is dying to have his acceptance. Forced to face her true self, can she live with it? Giannoli has given us not a satire or a comedy, but a tragic love story about people who for various reasons—greed, sexual gratification, cowardice, self-love—cannot tell the truth; and one innocent, naïve woman must suffer for it.