Xavier Giannoli has a gift for the absurd. The French writer-director of Superstar, a highly accomplished Coen-esque take-off of hollow celebrity selected for Golden Lion consideration at the 2012 Venice film festival, returns to the stage with Marguerite, a multiple Cesar-winning satire of an ageing socialite’s obsession with the spotlight. Set in 1920s postwar Paris amid the bourgeois patter of unctuous schmoozing confrères, Marguerite takes its inspiration from the life of Florence Foster Jenkins, the New York heiress whose ancestral assets financed a singing career belying her less than stellar vocal ability. While the eponymous dame de loisirs displays an outwardly similar lack of talent and self-awareness, Giannoli’s knack for hitting all the right notes on a notoriously difficult scale ensures this charming comedy of manners never descends into all-out melodic mockery, and instead neatly examines the familiar need for self-delusion.
The fact that Meryl Streep is set to star as Foster Jenkins herself in an upcoming Stephen Frears biopic could perhaps have saddled Marguerite with an excessive weight of expectation, given the obvious thematic parallels. Whatever the approach assumed by Streep et al, however, Giannoli has in Catherine Frot a lead of such impressive humility that any potential comparisons may well prove futile. Paying due homage to Gallic farce tradition, Frot warbles her way through a series of invite-only social functions deliberately manipulated to keep her in a constant state of ignorance, masterfully executed by her butler Madelbos (Denis Mpunga). Indeed Mpunga would more than steal the show were it not for Michel Fau’s arrival in the second act as Divo, the bankrupt former star hamming his way through Marguerite’s pretense, operating as a kind of histrionic aide-mémoire to the almost grotesque absurdity of the charade. The entire supporting troupe is wonderfully cast, with Sylvain Dieuaide foppishly brilliant as critic Lucien Beaumont and Andre Marcon a figure of destitution as Marguerite’s long-suffering husband Georges, despite introductions being slightly fleeting.
Marguerite (though probably at least half an hour too long at two hours and twenty minutes running time) skillfully poses a number of intriguing quandaries. Given the fragility of disposition, when is it acceptable to lie to prevent hurt? Is it ever? And who benefits? There is more than a frisson of tragedy inherent in Marguerite’s spectacle, but perhaps therein lies the solution: life is often everything once. As Foster Jenkins famously declared: “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I did not sing.” No one can ever say Marguerite did not live.
Marguerite is released nationwide on 18th March 2016.
Watch the trailer for Marguerite here: