Though Meryl Streep portrays the deluded, caterwauling New York diva Florence Foster Jenkins onscreen later this year, it’s hard to imagine a better movie on the strange topic than this French, fictionalized version, titled Marguerite.
Like her early-20th century U.S. counterpart, Marguerite Dumont (Catherine Frot) is a pampered socialite. Instead of Manhattan, her home is a country chateau in the French countryside, where peacocks roam the grounds emitting ear-scraping caws that echo the sound of their mistress’s singing. (Is it me, or does the name “Marguerite Dumont” intentionally recall that of American actress Margaret Dumont, the cultured, stentorian foil to Groucho in the Marx Brothers movies?)
Hosting a musical fundraiser for WWI orphans at the chateau, Marguerite waits in her dressing room as young singers from Paris sing classics like the flower song from Lakmé to moneyed men and ladies in the drawing room. Then, it’s Marguerite’s turn — and the jig is up as she gloriously, horribly, butchers the Queen of Night aria from The Magic Flute. (Here’s a clip on YouTube of the real-life Jenkins’s own version of it.)
The assembled guests applaud politely. They’re used to Marguerite’s unaware performances. But here’s the thing. Two artistic (and con-artistic) lads from Paris have jumped her estate wall to crash the concert — journalist Julien (Sylvain Dieuaide) and the monocled poet Kyril (Aubert Fenoy). And they think that Marguerite is fabulous!
Embroiled in the anything-can-be-art Dadaist movement, they adopt her as their mascot in backroom Paris performances, where she screeches her way through “La Marseillaise” while WWI newsreel footage is projected on her toga. It’s hilarious. The thing is, though: Marguerite is not in on the joke. No one will tell her that her singing could drive a dog to suicide.
“Did you see her eyes?” Lucien marvels. “The loneliness! … We could have sold her anything.” And that’s what makes the movie deeper than it has any need to be. We find ourselves caring for, and wishing to protect, this lonely woman, who really only wants to please her husband Georges (André Marcon, in a nice, slow-burn performance).
Soon, Marguerite is swept into the Paris demimonde, whose characters include a bearded lady fortuneteller and a faded, cynical singing master (Michel Fau). He reluctantly agrees to give Marguerite lessons, first via blackmail, then out of the same sort of sympathy the poor-little-rich lady unknowingly elicits from everyone she meets.
Among many elements that make Xavier Giannoli’s film compelling is the way it finds complexity and varied emotional cords in the story, instead of treating it as a single, campy joke. Thus, Kyril and Lucien are scoundrels, yes, but they also become the closest things Marguerite has to real friends. Likewise, the hulking manservant Madelbos (Denis Mpunga) is an enabler of his mistress’s obsession with singing. But what appears to be his loving concern for Marguerite reveals additional motives as the tale unfolds. Even Georges, who has a girlfriend on the side and tolerates his wife because she’s the one with the money, is not immune to changes of the heart.
While the film is intelligent, surprising, funny and even moving, I wasn’t crazy about its last act, when our heroine suddenly seems loony instead of merely deluded. The ending is borderline brutal — a departure from the lighter spirit that characterizes most of the movie. But I liked Marguerite a lot, as much for as despite its clashing moods. It’s an odd and fascinating hybrid: a melancholy romp.
There’s another terrific French film opening this week, Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Days. It makes sense that its protagonist, Paul Dédalus (Mathieu Amalric), is a professional anthropologist. After all, watching any movie by writer-director Desplechin (Kings & Queen, A Christmas Tale) is a little like trying to decode a culture that resembles our own, but deviates from the norms in unexpected ways. Maybe it’s just a French thing.
The movie’s original title is Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse. As you might expect, it breaks down into three stories about the younger life of Paul, played in the wraparound framing device by Amalric, as a schoolboy by Antoine Bui and as a young man by Quentin Dolmaire, who shoulders the bulk of the film.
Chapter 1, “Childhood,” is like a lot of other coming-of-age under hardship stories. Except, in most of those, the 11-year-old hero doesn’t have to protect his two younger siblings from their mother, fending her off with a knife at their bedroom door. His father isn’t a much better parent, often drunk and beating Paul for coming home with bad grades. The only lacuna of comfort the boy finds is with his great aunt Rose (Françoise Lebrun), a necktie-wearing lesbian with a Russian girlfriend.
Russia continues to play a role in chapter 2, aptly titled “Russia.” Here, circa the early 1980s, the teenage Paul (now played by Dolmaire) and a classmate enjoy a dangerous Boys’ Adventure on a school trip to Minsk. They ditch their fellow students at a museum and carry a verboten envelope of papers and U.S. currency across town to an apartment full of Jewish refuseniks trapped behind the Iron Curtain. And it’s here that Paul voluntarily surrenders his passport to the group, allowing a boy his own age to travel to Israel as a newly coined “Paul Dédalus.”
This plot turn establishes notions of identities in flux, doppelgangers and alternate lives — ideas that will come round again by the movie’s epilogue three decades later.
Chapter 3, “Esther,” takes up much of the movie’s running time. Now a poor but ambitious student in Paris, Paul returns some weekends to his drab northern hometown, Roubaix, to see his siblings and, especially, one of his sister’s high school classmates. When he first courts her, Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet) is a blonde, boy-magnet sphinx who murmurs things like, “You can’t forget me. You never will.” And you believe her. (It certainly proves to be true for Paul himself.)
Desplechin deftly, sometimes frustratingly, captures the self-dramatizing push-me-pull-you of young love, followed inevitably (as many years pass) by regret and second-guessing about the way things might have worked out.
A longtime collaborator of Desplechin’s, Amalric previously played Paul Dédalus in 1996’s My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument. In that film, which I have not seen, another Desplechin muse, Emmanuelle Devos, played an older version of Esther. I guess (or hope anyway) that we’ll see another Paul Dédalus movie in the future — in the same way that François Truffaut kept revisiting his own onscreen stand-in, Antoine Doinel (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud) in a series of films.
Oh, but I forgot to mention what really distinguishes My Golden Days. As in his other films, how Desplechin tells his story, as much as the story itself, is what gives the movie its eccentric energy. He fragments the time frame and loves to use old-fashioned devices like an iris lens or split-screens. Sometimes, the soundtrack fills with the solemn tones of a narrator filling us in on plot points, or the actors themselves turn to the camera and speak to us. The effect is sometimes kooky and confounding, discursive yet charming.
Desplechin has a way of making films that look very messy, but are absolutely under his control. You may feel like you’re not getting his film, but by the end it has a way of getting you.
Marguerite. With Catherine Frot, André Marcon, Michel Fau, Sylvain Dieuaide. Directed by Xavier Giannoli. In French with subtitles. Rated R. 129 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
My Golden Days. With Quentin Dolmaire, Mathieu Amalric, Lou Roy-Lecollinet. Directed by Arnaud Desplechin. In French with subtitles. Rated R. 123 minutes. At the Tara.