1966 was the year Simon & Garfunkel released Sounds of Silence, The Mothers of Invention startled the music world with Help I’m a Rock, Brian Wilson began putting together “Good Vibrations”, and the Beatles were becoming more popular than Jesus. That same year Elva Connes Miller, a/k/a Mrs. Miller, hit the airwaves with her Greatest Hits: a collection of pop tunes ranging from “A Hard Day’s Night” and “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” to “Chim Chim Cher-ee” delivered in a warbling faux classical style, rarely in tune. Her album sold 250,000 copies in 3 weeks. She appeared on The Tonight Show, Ed Sullivan, Art Linkletter’s House Party, Laugh-In, and in the film The Cool Ones with Roddy MacDowell. Nearly 40 years later, the ultra nerdy William Hung achieved the same sort of unlikely popularity on American Idol with an enthusiastic and dreadfully out of tune rendition of Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs.”
We all have a nagging little voice that tells us we might faking it, that we’re not really as competent as we pretend to be at doing what we are passionate about. The “fake police,” as singer Amanda Palmer calls them, are always waiting at our door. But we persist with courage and confidence, often to discover that we’re not so bad after all. Pop culture is not as systematic when it comes to discernment. From Paris Hilton to the Kardasians, notoriety for doing nothing much has made for profitable and viable entertainment. But the ingenuous performer who, despite an utter lack of talent, persists and manages to prevail wins our hearts. We’re not laughing at them as much as with them. From “The Emperor’s New Clothes” to Warhol’s self-proclaimed ‘superstars’ — it’s an age-old story.
Set among the upper classes of Paris in the 1920s, director Xavier Giannoli’s Marguerite follows the tragicomic fortunes of Baroness Marguerite Dumont, a singer of divine cluelessness, who is protected by her friends and her servants from suspecting her disastrous lack of talent. She forges ahead with enthusiasm, delivering increasingly popular concerts in her parlor to the (evident) delight of her friends. Unlike today’s singers, Marguerite is not in on the joke. She is a serious lover of classical music and comports herself with professional aplomb, assisted by her faithful French-African head servant, Madelbos. Marguerite’s husband can’t find the right words, nor has he the heart, to introduce a note of reality — she is an utterly horrid singer. The irony is that her obliviousness is endearing; her enthusiasm for singing wins the hearts of those close to her. Nobody is willing to spill the beans to the clueless baroness.
The film is based on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins, an American whose lack of pitch, rhythm, or diction, may have had something to do with her ongoing battle with syphilis and the side effects of the only known cure: mercury and arsenic treatments. (This notion is forwarded by the documentary Florence Foster Jenkins: A World Of Her Own available on YouTube). Jenkins died a week after a high profile and critically disastrous performance at Carnegie Hall on October 25, 1944.
Giannoli’s Marguerite is essentially a study of delusion and illusion, the deceptive power of love and faith. The director steeps us in lush period detail and quixotic characters. At the center of the film is Catherine Frot’s magnificent performance. Her Dumont is nuanced with grit, pathos, and a sincerity that infuses grace and confidence into each ear-scrapping recital. How this woman manages to sing so badly is a wonder. Denis Mpunga’s Madelbos is grave and committed as he stage manages Dumont’s ‘career’: there are some hints of erotic attraction. He hides poor reviews (‘The Screeching Baroness’ reads one headline), sets up her performances, and keeps naysayers at a distance. Dumont’s husband Georges (André Marcon) does what he can to dissuade her from stepping outside the safety zone of her own parlor, but to no avail. He’s a philanderer, but the baroness gave him his title, so he is trapped in the marriage. She prefers not to perform unless he is present — an obligation that he does his best to resist because it causes him endless embarrassment. Hazel Klein (Christa Theret), an accomplished up-and-coming singer opening for Marguerite begins to understand the game being played. Knowing glances are exchanged among Hazel, Madelbos, Georges, and two visitors to the estate, the foppish artist and poet Kyril Von Preist (Aubert Fenoy) and his friend Lucien Beaumont (Sylvain Dieuaide), an art critic.
The two friends are at first bemused by her singing but, with the Dadaist and Surrealist movements in full swing, the two come to appreciate the singer’s brazenly ‘artful’ eccentricity. “She doesn’t know she sings off-key?” asks Hazel. “I think not,” Beaumont responds. “Off-key, but sublimely,” Von Preist states. “Divinely off-key” adds Beaumont ”“Wildly off-key” concludes Von Preist. They book Dumont to sing at a Dadaist club filled with artists and poets, “Bolshevists and avant-gardists.” It is an untidy establishment, roiling with Anarchist fever. “The audience sounds very … responsive,” Dumont declares before going on. Her perfectly awful rendition of the French national anthem, “La Marsellaise,” is just what the anti-establishment crowd wants, a perceived slap in the face of bourgeois hypocrisy and conformity. But the performance generates criticism from among her peers, accusations of inappropriate behavior given a women of her status and ‘”artistic heritage.” Dumont responds” “Freedom? Precisely. “La Marsellaise” is the song of freedom. Aren’t we free to sing the song of freedom?” Her passion has been powerfully reinforced by the enthusiasm of a cheering crowd whose motivations she does not understand. Her fateful delusion and ambitions grow.
In addition to its meticulous set design and lush cinematography, Marguerite explores the nuanced humanity of its characters. Each figure is given a range of possible motivations for his or behavior — we are invited to make the moral judgment call. Are those around Dumont exploiting her and enabling a cruel delusion? To what extent does money and class shape this debacle? Unlike our contemporary pseudo stars, Marguerite’s reputation grows — not because of social media or marketing campaigns, but from a sincere fondness for the Baroness’s spirit and ingenuousness. Even her husband develops a begrudging respect for his wife, even after he calls her a ‘freak’ to his mistress. Like Erich von Stroheim’s Max, the dour butler who serves the faded silent film actress Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd, Marguerite’s servant Madelbos nurses his own intriguing secrets. Von Preist and Beaumont’s motives lie somewhere between patronage and politics. Still, despite the flaws and scheming of those around her, love stands as an underlying motive for the showbiz machinations. Frot’s genial and dizzy performance as Dumont wins our hearts, too. We are concerned: will this sweet, heedless, slightly pixilated woman of means be able to survive public exposure? Can she withstand a brush with reality? Marguerite is a gentle but apt parable for our current age of amusement at any cost, one filled with far more dangerous quacks and pretenders