“If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly,” famously wrote the wise G.K. Chesterton. The poignant side of this gentle philosophy shows in the movie “Marguerite.”
Set in the glamorous Paris of the 1920s, the movie is beyond beautiful to look at. Marguerite Dumont – the name is clearly a nod to the Marx Brothers’ comic heroine – lives in a grand villa full of flowers and light. She goes to the opera. There are glimmering glasses of champagne, breathtaking boulevards, gorgeous gowns.
At odds with all this visual beauty is Dumont’s attempt to sing opera. She can’t do it. But she thinks she can.
The result, which you see brutally as soon as the movie starts, is a tragic confusion. Inside her head, Dumont hears herself as a great diva. Listeners, in contrast, giggle in embarrassment. It’s excruciating.
“Marguerite” is doubtlessly inspired by the true story of Florence Foster Jenkins, a society woman who was committed to being an opera singer, the actual quality of her voice be damned. This movie kicks off a wider exploration of a strange musical life and legacy. Another movie opening soon stars Meryl Streep as Jenkins.
Streep needs our good wishes, because it will be hard to top this fictional Jenkins. Catherine Frot, as Marguerite, has wistful and naive qualities that make your heart go out to her. All she wants is the love of her husband, but he is in over his head with all of her singing nonsense and is seeking solace elsewhere. Ridiculously, she finds herself up against one after another character who privately sneers at her and uses her. There is the self-serving young music critic; the famous but fading tenor; even a few circus freaks.
That she is gracious with all of them makes her lovable and remarkable. Vain and delusional though she may be, she is a bright spirit. The problem is that no one wants to tell her the truth. The tenor tries, and her husband tries – but it’s funny and awful at the same time, how neither succeeds.
How and when will it all resolve itself? That worried me increasingly as the movie goes on, because I came to care for this woman.
Back to Chesterton’s wisdom. What touched me most about Marguerite was her love for opera, for music.
I cannot tell you how many skilled musicians and singers I have encountered who, adept as they were, seemed to miss the bigger picture – the glory of the art they practice. They don’t sit up late at night listening to Brahms. They don’t wish they could go back in time and meet Johann Sebastian Bach. Music, if they ever loved it to begin with, is just a job. They don’t “get” it.
And as someone who works with music for a living, I am hardly one to judge. I can see how it can happen, how music could stop being something you love and could become something else. Chesterton’s words spoke to the naive beauty of amateurs. The word “amateur” comes from Latin, from the word for love. Who has chosen the better portion? The great diva who makes a killing singing opera, then shrugs, goes home and listens to crud? Or Marguerite, who does it badly, for the love? This heart-wrenching movie raises a lot of questions and leaves you with conflicting emotions.
I am looking forward to Meryl Streep, with Act 2.
3.5 stars (out of 4)
Starring: Catherine Frot, Andre Marcon, Michel Fau
Director: Xavier Giannol
Running time: 127 minutes.
Rating: R for brief nudity, sexual content, scene in opium den.
Lowdown: A wealthy socialite with a terrible voice believes she can sing opera. In French with English subtitles.