I will freely admit that I have a soft spot for films that tell stories like that of Marguerite’s. This is a story of an artist who doesn’t know that what she produces for the world is the subject of ridicule and mockery, but her passion for her art form is so genuine that it is hard not to feel sympathy for her lack of talent. Essentially, this is the sort of story that we usually see told about mad auteur filmmakers like James Nguyen and Tommy Wiseau, people whose ambition blinds them to the fact that they aren’t making anything of the artistic merit they boast. Marguerite may be fictional and about opera singing rather than film direction, but its story is very much in the vein of The Disaster Artist.
Set in 1920s France, aristocrat Marguerite Dumont performs for her local music club as a vocalist, but her singing is so terrible that her audience must either retreat to the next room or prevent themselves from laughing at the spectacle. Even Marguerite’s husband, Georges, is ashamed of her, contriving excuses to miss her recitals, yet preserving her feelings by fabricating acclaim through adoring fans’ gifts. When Marguerite receives a subtly mocking review that she mistakes for praise, she ventures out to meet her critic, which sets her on a journey to perform her first public recital while Georges and various other acquaintances choke back telling her that she is only setting up her own humiliation.
The film is structured as a comedy and works remarkably well despite the French language barrier, with absurdist surrealism of the era beautifully complimenting the stunned reactions of Marguerite’s audiences. Catherine Frot plays Marguerite with an obliviousness that seems almost willful, and her desire to only make her husband proud is what makes the film also function in its more tragic turns. There’s a desperation and constant anticipation of disappointment in Marguerite’s every action, so it’s easy to feel sorry for her when her hopes and dreams are betrayed as reality begins to crash down around her. I can think of few films that so cleverly balance comedic tone with heartbreaking tragedy, but the juxtaposition never feels forced.
However, the screenplay could have used at least one more revisionary draft to strengthen its structure. A couple of minor characters have a romantic subplot that either needed to be further developed or cut entirely, but seems entirely superfluous as it stands. The bigger offense, though, is that the film effectively has two climaxes, framed in different ways but ultimately communicating the same idea. If the second climax had worked to change the end result of the narrative, I would have been on-board for its inclusion, but it only functions to extend the film by an extra twenty minutes with no new thematic information conveyed.
These are minor issues, though, as the performance of Catherine Frot and the witty dialogue of Marguerite are easily enough to recommend it. Its theatrical run may be limited here in the United States, but I strongly recommend searching it out or finding it on home video in a couple months. It’s a gem of a film that shouldn’t be missed just because of its foreign origin.