Lawrence Toppman

Mad ‘Marguerite’ inspires laughs – and maybe a tear

A wealthy matron (Catherine Frot) sings blithely (if horribly) to the amazement of all who hear her in “Marguerite.”
A wealthy matron (Catherine Frot) sings blithely (if horribly) to the amazement of all who hear her in “Marguerite.” Larry Horricks

Margaret Dumont starred in seven Marx Brothers movies as the butt of Groucho’s humor, playing rich dowagers who didn’t understand his double entendres. The biggest gag of all, as she later admitted herself, was that the jokes shot right over her head: She moved with dignity through the absurd plots, oblivious to the craziness around her.

So when I heard the title “Marguerite,” saw that the main character was called Marguerite Dumont, watched the trailer and read the plotline for this French import – a rich, clueless woman embarks on a performing career in the 1920s, unaware of her lack of talent – I expected satire. I was far wrong, but in a good way.

In the first place, writer-director Xavier Giannoli bases his story on a very different American figure of fun: Florence Foster Jenkins, whose inherited wealth allowed her to hold concerts and make recordings despite an aberrant sense of pitch and rhythm. Blithe Marguerite (played touchingly by Catherine Frot) even wears white angel wings onstage, as Jenkins did, and sings two of her signature arias.

And though Marguerite remains oblivious to the havoc and hilarity she provokes with her enthusiastic screeching, we’re not meant to laugh at her.

Her disgusted husband (André Marcon) calls her a freak; a journalist (Sylvain Dieuaide) thinks she’s good copy; an anarchist (Aubert Fenoy) uses her to “deconstruct” fine art and mock bourgeois principles. Her butler (Denis Mpunga), who first seems to be a devoted servant in the “Sunset Boulevard” mode, hopes to exploit her: If she becomes a national joke, photos he has taken throughout her “career” will make him rich.

Giannoli (assisted by “collaborating writer Marcia Romano,” whatever that means), wants us to find Marguerite’s singleminded devotion to art touching. She’s painfully self-deluded, mistaking squawks for beautiful eruptions of passion. But like the peacocks on her lawn, whose harsh cries punctuate the soundtrack, she makes the noise God intended her to make.

The real Jenkins sang blithely into her mid-70s, performing at Carnegie Hall just weeks before her death in a New York hotel in 1944. That doesn’t seem dramatic enough for a film, so “Marguerite” lapses briefly into fantasy and then into a melodrama that seems a bit of a cop out. Nor did I need the subplot about a talented singer who falls for the journalist and gets help from Marguerite in her legitimate career.

But the story never goes wrong when we’re in the presence of a title character, the kind of holy fool moviemakers have embraced since Charlie Chaplin’s silent comedies. It’s possible to laugh at Marguerite and with her at the same time. Cover your ears at key moments, and you may even fall in love with her.

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Cast: Catherine Frot, André Marcon, Denis Mpunga.

Writer-Director: Xavier Giannoli.

Length: 129 minutes.

Rating: R (brief graphic nudity and sexual content, and a scene of drug use).