Flanked by dozens of volunteers, festival maestro Roger Durling introduced the final film of the 31st Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival, Xavier Giannoli’s French dramedy Marguerite, by thanking the “700 volunteers that have made this possible.”
SBIFF organizers chose to close the festival with a foreign film. The near-packed house had time to ponder this curative choice when the film’s subtitles were cut off, prompting the crew to restart Marguerite four times before finally getting it right. During the delay, it became clear that the vast majority of the audience did not speak French; a linguistic reality that was loudly proclaimed by the few dozen folks who left the Arlington during this period of technical difficulties. (I’m sure this was instructive for the poor folks manning the projector, who apparently needed to be reminded that Santa Barbara is not, in fact, a French territory.)
Interestingly, Marguerite is a film about a woman’s relationship with her (often similarly disgruntled) audience. The movie is based loosely on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins, an American socialite who pursued a career as an opera singer despite having a voice that was more “dying chicken” than “Maria Callas.”
While Marguerite is a period piece about a wealthy Baroness living in 1920s France, it poses a timeless question: What do you say when a musician friend shares one of their tracks with you and it’s awful? If you said “offer a gentle critique,” you’re a better person than literally everyone in Marguerite Dumont’s (Catherine Frot) life, who all lie through their teeth and are paid handsomely for it. One of these people is, unfortunately, Marguerite’s beloved husband, Georges. “She bought my title,” not me,” says Georges to his mistress — because of course he has a mistress. “To me, she’s no longer a woman, she’s turned into a sort of…freak.”
After Lucien and Kyrill, a young writer and avant-garde artist, respectively, attend one of Marguerite’s vanity “recitals” (hosted by a music club put of which she is a patron) they are shocked when her atrocious “Queen of the Night” aria is met with applause. After Lucien writes a sarcastically rapturous review of the recital — Marguerite finally gets some of the widespread attention she so desperately seeks. She ends up connecting with Lucien, who encourages her to perform at an avant-garde show put on by Kyrill, where she gets a taste of a real audience. After that, Marguerite’s delusion truly takes wing, and she ends up coming into the acquaintance of a down-on-his-luck opera singer, Atos Pezzini, who acts as her tutor and prepares her for what she seemingly wants most — a “real” performance in an opera house.
While there are shades of Sunset Boulevard in Marguerite’s self-obsessed delusion — like Norma Desmond, her home is filled with framed vanity photographs of herself and she has a devoted manservant, Madelbos — Frot’s performance is sweet and winning. When Marguerite reveals to Lucien: “Can I tell you a secret? It took me a while to find my voice,” you can’t help but ache for her. While the film has a bit of an undercooked subplot in the flirtation between Lucien and singer Hazel, it is, like its tragic heroine, at once inspiring and very sad. “The sublime and the ridiculous are never far apart,” says Pezzini at one point in the film. Indeed.