The empress has no pitch: Marguerite ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 9, 2016)

It’s been said that many who fancy themselves singers can’t “hear” their own true voice (ever been to a Karaoke bar?). Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder; but in the ears, not so much. Off key is off key, and unfortunately for wealthy arts patron Marguerite Dumont (Catherine Frot) this is Paris in the 20s, and Auto-Tune is many decades hence.

Her heart is in the right place, though. In fact music is her driving passion, and in the opening of writer-director Xavier Giannoli’s eponymous drama, we witness a gathering of aristocrats (and a few party-crashers) that has converged on Marguerite’s sprawling estate for a charity fundraiser. Marguerite has invited a number of accomplished musicians to perform. The biggest buzz surrounds the headliner-Marguerite herself, who has prepared one of her favorite Soprano pieces to regale her guests with. However, she’s holding off until her husband Georges (Andre Marcon) arrives; it seems he has car issues.

It turns out that Georges has frequent trouble with the car; weirdly enough this occurs every time Marguerite gives a recital at their home (although the significance of this “coincidence” has never occurred to the unflappably enthusiastic Marguerite). As the guests are getting impatient, the show must go on…and so Marguerite takes center stage.

When Marguerite begins to sing, erm, how can I put this politely…well, let’s just say she is no Edith Piaf. OK, full disclosure: Her caterwauling could decalcify your spinal column at 100 paces. She’s godawful. But…she’s so enthusiastically godawful that she is at once oddly endearing. We assume this, because nobody has ever told her how utterly horrifying her singing is; neither her guests (who in fact give her a standing O) nor her longtime butler (Denis Mpunga), nor husband (aside from those “problems” with the car).

Two of the “party-crashers” I referred to earlier are an ambitious young journalist and his pal, an avant-garde provocateur, who are intrigued by the inexplicably sycophantic cocoon of “admirers” that enables Marguerite to remain cheerfully oblivious to her atonal warbling. Do they do this out of kindness? Or are they being ironic? Perhaps there’s something the young men are “missing”? The pair decides to conduct a sort of social experiment. If they can coax Marguerite out of her hermetic bubble, into a real public performance, she might prove to be a true phenomenon. Stranger things have happened.

What ensues is a sometimes uneasy cross between The Producers and The Dinner Game. The saving grace is Frot’s brave and moving performance; she’s sweet, funny and heartbreaking all at once. Michel Fau is another standout as a fading opera singer who is reluctantly recruited into playing Henry Higgins to Marguerite’s Eliza Doolittle (his characterization also recalls the exasperated singing coach who is hired to tutor Orson Welles’ tone-deaf wife in Citizen Kane). While there are many amusing moments, this is not a lighthearted romp; the odious, uniquely human capacity to cruelly exploit others for personal gain is on full display. Then again, you know what they say: “That’s show biz!

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