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Marguerite is a scrumptious French period movie from writer-director Xavier Giannoli. It has the dramatic density, social sweep and sardonic bite of great French fiction. Think Balzac, Maupassant. I kept searching for faults, sceptical of perfection. (The film failed to win a trinket in Venice last year.) Is it over-rich in its kitschy decor? Over-camp in its supporting roles? Does it overdo the dissonant squalls of the title heroine, inspired by Florence Foster Jenkins, the true-life American wannabe opera diva who couldn’t hit a note but whose wealth sheltered her from scoffing cynics? (Once a model for Citizen Kane’s Susan Alexander, she is the subject of an imminent biopic starring Meryl Streep.)
No to all questions. Giannoli commands every note like a maestro: comedy, farce, pathos, satire. Catherine Frot is wonderful as Marguerite Dumont, the lady with the louche larynx and long-suffering spouse (André Marcon, superb) — and a nomenclatural blood tie, surely, to Hollywood’s Margaret Dumont, that buffa patrician matron who kept making Groucho Marx’s day. Near the end she sings “Casta Diva” on stage, sounding like a tortured cat. Yet for a few seconds she catches its beauty like Callas. It’s heart-stopping. Likewise the pietà ending that follows.
Likewise, too, the moments when the film, surpassing even its own grand drame mastery, delivers a purler of dialogue exchange or character insight. “Does she always sing like that?” asks an innocent. “No, she’s come a long way,” is the reply. And in a role that’s almost a juvenile lead, yet is kept slyly, teasingly orbital, Sylvain Dieuaide excels as a vain, cynical, pretty-boy journalist with an opium habit and penchant for self-disgust. “I don’t like you much,” says Marguerite’s husband. “Me neither,” responds the youth. Then the older man puts a hand on his shoulder, like some pitying knighthood or benediction. It’s a marvellous moment of humanity. It’s a marvellous moment, among so many, of cinema.