Every few years two movies come out about the same subject at the same time, and one is lauded, while the other is overlooked. I hope that doesn’t happen with Marguerite, a truly wonderful French film “inspired by” the story of tone-deaf but passionate opera diva wannabe Florence Foster Jenkins. An American film starring Meryl Streep will be covering her story again in a few months time. But it is hard to believe that Meryl can top Catherine Frot’s performance, though if anyone can… And what a character she is! In the French version, she is known as Baroness Marguerite Dumont and she is heart-breakingly delightful!
Living in a beautiful chateau just outside Paris in the 1920s, Marguerite is obsessed with opera and acts out scenes from her favorites for her devoted butler/photographer. The film opens with a concert she has organized at her house to raise money for war orphans, where beautiful music is played and talented young opera singers perform dazzling arias. But Marguerite is the final act and her singing could peel the paint from the walls. I’ve never heard anyone sing so badly with such passion. Of course, no one tells her how horrid it is, because she is rich and kind. And she really doesn’t have a clue either. But she meets a couple of young party-crashers at her benefit and before you know it, they’ve talked her into taking part in a wildly experimental public event they’re staging, much to her frequently absent husband’s chagrin. And the experience along with her new friends’ support leads to her dream coming true, of singing before a real audience in a real opera house.
While Marguerite’s journey to the big performance is the main trajectory of the story, the film is really about a lonely woman trying to connect with a husband who has forgotten about her (even his mistress understands that.) And it is about a group of people who start out trying to take advantage of a rich dupe, but come to appreciate her passion and heart. The movie is hilarious at times and very sad at others. Catherine Frot is simply amazing as the aging baroness who’s been allowed to live in her dream world for so long that she actually thinks she is a great singer. Don’t choose between the Meryl and the Catherine versions. See them both. I know I will. And I suspect (just from the trailer) that the Meryl take will be quite different.