If you look at the name French director Xavier Giannoli gave to the heroine of his new feature, and if you're an attentive cinephile, you may have an inkling where he's coming from. Marguerite Dumont, like the great comic actress Margaret Dumont, "the fifth Marx Brother" in the words of Groucho himself, is a more than appropriate name for Catherine Frot's character - and it's a stunning, note-perfect performance, always hovering between utter cluelessness regarding how others see her and open-hearted generosity towards those around her.
The tale of this wealthy "lady who lunches" from 1920s Paris, an aspiring but totally talentless artiste who follows her dream of becoming an opera singer, may be inspired by the real story of Florence Foster Jenkins, but it's not played for laughs at Marguerite's expense. Instead, it's a wonderful example of how to respect your character and your story, finding the exact balance of comedy and tragedy, as Ms. Frot and Mr. Giannoli take their time in unveiling the woman behind the surface.
Married to a building magnate (André Marcon) with little time for her or inclination for the arts, with too much time and money on her hands, Marguerite doesn't look at music as a passing fad or a plaything to be explored until she is fed up. She isn't a mere dilettante trying on things for size; she is forthright and sincere in her love for music and desire to sing, and therein lies the key to Marguerite's poignancy, well pointed out in the growing respect those around her start finding for her.
Even if Lucien (Sylvain Dieuaide) and Hazel (Christa Théret), the journalist and the singer who work as the viewer's way into the private benefit recitals Marguerite gives, are initially incredulous, they come around to understand the love and dedication she puts into it, the fact that her heart is in it as much as theirs is. So who's the fraud here? Marguerite for believing in a talent she does not realise she does not have, or those around her who take advantage of her for their own ends?
Mr. Giannoli wraps that inside an intriguing romantic battle for her heart - between Georges, the inattentive husband who slowly understands the role music plays for his wife, and Madelbos (Denis Mpunga), the devoted, over-protective butler who will stop at nothing to realize her dreams. Both love Marguerite unconditionally, and show it in opposite ways, but to what end? And if she is pursuing her dream come hell or high water, how can we fault her?
It's an expertly crafted piece, shot in a beautifully textured widescreen by DP Glynn Speeckaert like a studio melodrama of the 1940s seen through a 1970s lens, flowing from classic melodrama about a woman following her heart into an ensemble piece about those she touches and back. And none of it would make any sense without Ms. Frot's wondrously generous performance at its heart, her Marguerite both mystifying and welcoming. Marguerite does not give you an answer, but makes you understand the woman.
France, Czech Republic, Belgium, 2015, 129 minutes
Starring Catherine Frot, André Marcon, Michel Fau, Christa Théret, Denis Mpunga, Sylvain Dieuaide, Aubert Fenoy, Sophia Leboutte, Théo Cholti
Directed by Xavier Giannoli; written by Mr. Giannoli with the collaboration of Marcia Romano; cinematographer Glynn Speeckaert (widescreen); music by Ronan Maillard; production designer Martin Kurel; costume designer Pierre-Jean Larroque; film editor Cyril Nakache; produced by Olivier Delbosc and Marc Missonnier, for Fidélité Films in association with Memento Films Distribution and in co-production with Gabriel, Sirena Film, Scope Pictures, France 3 Cinéma, Jouror Cinéma and CN5 Productions
Screened October 16th 2015, Medeia Monumental 1, Lisbon, distributor press screening