By Daniel Barnes
*Opens tomorrow at the Embarcadero Center Cinemas in San Francisco, the Albany Twin in Berkeley, the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, the Camera 3 in San Jose and the Aquarius in Palo Alto.
A major award winner at this year’s Cesars (i.e., French Oscars), so apparently that voting body is also old and white. Marguerite stars the wonderful Catherine Frot as Marguerite Dumont, a wealthy 1920s socialite who fancies herself a great opera diva, despite her nails-on-the-chalkboard singing voice. Her patronage of a snobby music club has purchased Marguerite a captive private audience, but when her party is crashed by an unscrupulous critic (“Is there any other kind?” he laughed, washing his underarms and crotch with wads of payola), the dizzily unaware siren is led onto the public stage. Writer-director Xavier Giannoli mines a wealth of material from a one-joke premise, and the amazing accomplishment of Frot’s performance is that we both laugh at and pity Marguerite, and regard her celebrity as both a travesty and a tragedy. The film touches on ideas of image and public perception and the creative spirit, and it seems especially concerned with the ways that we indulge the filthy rich, either by compulsion or desperation (I thought a lot about billionaire James Dolan’s boomer rock band while watching Marguerite), although it ultimately settles for something a little more tranquil and trite. Inspired by the American socialite/incompetent opera singer Florence Foster Jenkins, the character of Marguerite is too much of an easy joke to fill the entire film, and a lot of the most interesting stuff occurs on the margins, including the strange journey of her somewhat faithful servant Madelbos (Denis Mpunga), who serves as Marguerite’s protector, abettor, silent director and secret exploiter.