Marguerite seems like an odd choice to make the move from the Alliance Français French Film Festival to a general Australian release. Granted, it did well at the Cesars, but its pedigree is paired with a lacklustre, sluggish heap of a movie, ambling through half-assed farce and undercooked politics while finding little of merit beyond the performance of its star, Catherine Frot as Marguerite.
This is not to say that Marguerite is an awful film. Its story – of an upper-class lady with truly dreadful singing ability (or lack thereof) and her path towards an ignominious public performance – has its flashes of merit and charm. When the titular Marguerite’s, uh, ‘talents’, are exploited by an avant-garde, uber-political poet-slash-artist to parody upper class insulation in a scathing attack on the government of the time (amidst a performance art piece that attracts an audience through false promises of Charlie Chaplin), the film finds a vibrant political vein. Simultaneously it parodies the affected ‘outrageousness’ of modern art and bourgeois entitlement … but these themes are soon abandoned for a more conventional comedy.
Marguerite largely relies on the premise that a woman singing extremely badly is comedy gold. Perhaps that’ll hit the spot for you – it did for the elderly gentleman sitting across from me at my screening – but, for me, it’s a joke that wore out very quickly. There’re flashes of insight in the film’s portrayal of affluence as a condition of perpetual deception – in this case enacted by Marguerite’s husband (André Marcon), who concocts lies to protect his wife learning of her true abilities, and her manservant (Denis Mpunga), who stages elaborate photoshoots to satisfy his own artistic impulses while cultivating his mistress’s denial. But these fertile features are de-emphasised in favour of sappy sentimentality, broad jokes and a bloated runtime.
Still, the decision to release Marguerite to Australian audiences beyond the blue-rinse devotees of the French Film Festival makes a lot more sense when you scour the upcoming releases calendar of our fair nation. You see, Marguerite is a French adaptation of the true story of one Florence Foster Jenkins – whose story will be brought to our screens by the likes of Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant and Stephen Frears in the understandably-titled Florence Foster Jenkins.
This revelation explains a lot. The appearance of Marguerite in cinemas is motivated less by a respect for the integrity of the Cesars or the impression of artistic merit, but rather the old show business necessity of getting in first. Like the Volcano/Dante’s Peak or Armageddon/Deep Impact clashes of my youth, Marguerite is on our screens because it simply needs to be there before Ms Streep and friends. I’ve yet to see Frears’ adaptation, but even sight unseen, I’d wait to see what the English do with the story. Unless you’ve got a particular hankering to see the same story twice, I suppose.