Wednesday 28 December 2016

Marguerite (2016) - Movie Review
As I mentioned earlier this month, if an incredibly niche idea is worth making into a movie, might as well make it two. After sitting through Florence Foster Jenkins, and genuinely being quite impressed with the thing, discovering another film based on the same extraordinary person was rather intriguing. Rather than sticking to the real-life events of the tuneless songbird, this French outing instead touts to be inspired by those events and going in its own narrative direction. So, without automatically seeing fault in diverting from actual events (or it very well could be accurate and I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference), how does this altered take on the idea turn out?

The plot: French aristocrat Marguerite Dumont (Catherine Frot) has always had a love for the performing arts and opera in particular. Unfortunately, she appears unable to sing with any degree of competence. Not that this stops her as, with the apparent support of her husband Georges (AndrĂ© Marcon) and her manservant Madelbos (Denis Mpunga) among others, she starts going from private performances for a musical society that she helps fund to a grand theatrical performance before a live audience. As the preparations continue, it seems that either Marguerite’s voice or her flatterers’ patience will break before the curtain falls.

So, with Stephen Frears’ more high-brow screwball approach to the material in mind, how does director/co-writer Xavier Giannoli interpret it? Honestly, a lot more straight-faced. The awful singing courtesy of Catherine Frot is still framed within the same cringe comedy intent, but the drama and characters surrounding it are far more cynical and quite a bit colder as well. Marguerite herself seems to teeter between genuine love for the art and taking her empty collector’s mentality for music a bit too far, Georges’ infidelity serves as little more than character informing and Georges himself is far less willing to participate in her wife’s actions and her vocal coach Atos Pezzini (Michel Fau) has to be extorted in order to participate at all. With this in mind, it’s kind of difficult to discern just how much of the joke we’re meant to buy into, as the yes-man supporting cast comes across more condescending than anything genuine.

Then again, the titular singer being painted as this much of a victim makes it difficult to laugh anyway. Through the depiction of the musical scene around her, in particular an up-and-coming singer in Hazel Klein (Christa Theret), we see a very elitist and snobbish impression of opera. Not to say that this isn’t accurate, but the way it aligns with Marguerite’s place within it is rather suspect. She is shown as being a victim of her supposed allies who continually lie to her face, a genre that will freely allow sub-par performances so long as it is a man doing them and a society that sees her as more of a commodity than anything else. Hell, the first performance she gets outside of her musical circle is as part of an anarchic art installation, complete with retro slam poetry about the ills of society, and use her as a means to essentially deconstruct the norm. On the surface, this is perfectly fine and honestly quite true to the spirit of the character’s appeal but the heavy amount of cynicism wrapped around it makes it rather unfavourable.

But that is nothing compared to possibly the biggest issue with this film: It breaks the illusion. Near the end of the film, after a performance where Marguerite’s voice is strained so much that she ends up coughing blood on stage, she ends up in a hospital with apparent psychological delusion. This film turned pop delusion in how she is unaware of her own lack of singing ability into legitimate delusion that puts her brain into a fantastical state. That on its own is distasteful enough but then she is actually subjected to her own singing played back to her. To say that this is a betrayal is an understatement. Rather than allowing the world to enjoy what it wishes to, so long as the artist is willing to do so, this film frames it as something that absolutely has to be cured.

Okay, I know that pop culture hyperbole has often equated terrible artistic performances with some form of mental instability, usually for the sake of a cheap joke, but to actually make it a reality is quite unnerving. As a drama, it’s so overblown that it ends up reaching comedy from the other side. As an actual comedy, it’s difficult to laugh at someone who not only is proven to have actual mental problems but that everyone else in the film appears to be sneering at anyway. There’s no real showing of ironic entertainment in the affair, and those who do indulge in such are portrayed as the bad guys. For as often as I’ve advocated for watching films for the purportedly “wrong” reasons, I shouldn’t have to explain why this seriously goes against some pretty ingrained tenets of my own entertainment philosophy.

All in all, there’s nothing technically wrong with this feature: The acting is decent, the music fits the mood of each scene and when it’s actively trying to be good, it’s pretty damn good, and the writing offers a different perspective on the story which, if there’s going to be two films about the same idea within the same year, is probably the most sensible thing to do. But as for its handling of the idea itself, it is incredibly distasteful in how it mangles the notion of people creating art because they want to, and people enjoying that art because they want to, and instead turns it into a giant display of mockery that makes it nearly impossible to find funny, and even more unlikely to find dramatically moving.

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