Marguerite: On with the Motley, by David Bax
Xavier Giannoli’s Marguerite establishes its premise with an extended prologue at a private party in the home of a baroness in 1920s Paris. After a brief procession of lovely opera singers entertain the gathered aristocrats, the party’s hostess, Marguerite (Catherine Frot), takes the floor for a rendition of her own. She is an objectively terrible singer and Giannoli lets the full performance play out awkwardly and hilariously. The audience sits and smiles appreciatively, applauding at the end. By the completion of this lengthy opening sequence, we have witnessed a Bunuel-style class satire yet we have also developed a deep sympathy for this passionate, guileless woman, whose own husband skips out on her display and then later lacks the respect to even reject her timid sexual advances, choosing instead to ignore them. This dichotomous balance of the overblown and the humanistic will continue to mark the film as it goes. This is a movie in which everyone is too socially queasy to tell Marguerite the truth, yet that collective lack of fortitude ends up being the best for all concerned.
Two young writers happen to have crashed the party that day. Lucien (Sylvain Dieuaide) and Kyril (Aubert Fenoy), with some help from another singer, Hazel (Christa Théret), use their meager platforms to encourage Marguerite’s dreams of performing for larger, public audiences. After a cabaret show gets her arrested but invigorates her, the youths set her up with a teacher – a down-on-his-luck opera singer named Pezzini (Michel Fau) – and book a major hall for the recital of Marguerite’s lifetime.
Giannoli keeps us guessing as to Lucien and Kyril’s motives. Do they see the beauty and urgency beneath Marguerite’s squawking, as they proclaim? Or is this a joke to them? Marguerite is never transparent about any of its characters’ inner ambitions but suggests that the answers to these sort of questions change as the film goes on. The downside to this approach, at least when it comes to Lucien and Kyril, is that they often come across as audience avatars or other tools wielded by the screenplay instead of actual characters. The thoroughly uninteresting romantic subplot between Lucien and Hazel only throws this problem into greater relief, as does the fact that all three are absent for long stretches of runtime.
Marguerite, though far more ridiculous a character than the younger cast, is also far more interesting and well rounded. Giannoli finds darkly comic tragedy in the way she collects costumes and sets from operas past and ropes her staff, including faithful manservant Madelbos (Denis Mpunga), into staging and photographing garish tableaux, casting herself as the heroines of these great stories. There’s a desire on her part to be someone other than herself, underlined by the conspicuous way Giannoli and cinematographer Glynn Speeckaert often obscure her face. In one shot, she sits motionless on her bed in a plague doctor mask. In another, she lies on a sofa and then the camera tracks right until her head has been replaced in the frame by the horn of a phonograph. Even when not trying to parse Marguerite’s mind, surreal imagery like the giant plaster eyeball on the grass behind her house peppers the film.
Marguerite’s stirring lack of talent is depicted as perfect for the disillusionment and nihilism of post-World War I France. Dadaism swelled in Paris during this period of reconstruction and Kyril in particular is almost a proto-punk in his gleeful nihilism and anarchy.
That doesn’t mean that Kyril, or the film, doesn’t believe in art, though. On the contrary, Giannoli suggests that these people, Marguerite included, are saviors of art, scraping away the pomposity of the culture that has grown around it like barnacles off the hull of a ship, seeking to reintroduce the world to art’s exquisite power. Giannoli insists that beauty comes in more forms than we often allow ourselves to perceive. With Marguerite, he finds poignancy in the unexpected, from the incessant squealing of peacock to the flaying and gutting of a recently shot doe to a woman magnificently unsuited to the stage to which she strives.