I love to write – as if that wasn’t obvious to you all. I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life. I’m constantly self-conscious of my style and voice, and so I’m always wanting to improve wherever and however possible. With all of that said, however, if you find my writing irredeemably deplorable beyond repair, for the love of God, please be blunt with me and sound off immediately. I probably won’t listen to you but please, make your voices heard.
Most of those who knew of her and heard her sing likely didn’t want Florence Foster Jenkins to make her voice heard, and allegedly for good reason. You probably know of the biopic starring Meryl Streep as the aforementioned figure, and if so, you’re aware that Mrs. Jenkins had a notoriously horrid singing voice, and that no one had the guts to tell her so. The flick seems to feature the same sugary sweet sentimentality Hollywood is skilled at putting out, though it has garnered a couple of Oscar nods, one of them being for Streep. But this story of Mrs. Jenkins comes in the form of French film Marguerite, a loose adaptation that would have been better off letting audiences wait for the English version.
Co-writer/director Xavier Giannoli’s film was nominated for 11 honors at the 41st César Awards, and the four it won were objectively deserved. First of all, Marguerite is certainly a looker. Stunning production and costume design plunge the viewer into a milieu that’s unabashedly decadent as it circumnavigates the trappings of upper class social life. It’s clear that great efforts were taken to make the mise-en-scène as authentic as possible, and for a moment it’s easy to forget where you are – even if you’re viewing it on a computer screen. The cinematography isn’t terribly shabby either. Giannoli wants to communicate a sympathetic eye – sometimes succeeding – and the magic of art isn’t forgotten in his sights.
Another of the film’s César victories was for Best Actress, given to Catherine Frot in her title role. Class and grace always underline the enthusiasm with which she provides every scene, and she does the historical figure her character is based upon justice through unwavering sympathy. The rest of the cast is admirably fair game for the material they’re given, as well. Aside from Marguerite’s husband Georges (André Marcon) and perhaps their servant Madelbos (Denis Mpunga), the other protagonists are flat and never fully fleshed out thanks to the film’s narrative progression, but each performer gives them enough life to keep scenes watchable.
Watch-ability, though, can only count for so much when Giannoli and co-writer Marcia Romano undercut any sort of effectively humanist direction with a perplexing cynical tone. Perhaps it’s unintentional, but it’s far more cringe-worthy than Marguerite’s singing ever could have been. The French certainly have a world-renowned history of arts and culture, and Gianolli and Romano seem perfectly content with exploiting national stereotypes by using the silver-tongued lashings of socialites and the intelligentsia against a poor woman for the purposes of comedy.
For a film meant to find compassion in its protagonists, particularly questionable types like Georges, Marguerite is exceedingly mean-spirited when it comes to its title character, which is only confirmed by the time the pessimistic ending has reached its final frame. Giannoli and Romano actively and repeatedly tell us to find the humor in Marguerite’s singing, particularly through the horrified reactions of first-time listeners. Not only does this approach horribly clash with any attempts at understanding, but also it makes the film’s already methodical pacing even more languid.
A little over a week ago now, I talked about Shyamalan getting in his own way, tonally speaking, with Split. Not only does Giannoli get in his own way with Marguerite, but also he pushes back any progress made towards an empathetic lens. It’s a shame that his film be so unenjoyable when everything from a technical and aesthetic perspective is on point. It’s the director’s job to keep everything in order and right the ship, and Giannoli simply wasn’t up to the task.