There certainly ain’t no business like show business. Or amateur operatics for that matter. Eccentric, philanthropic baroness Marguerite Dumont (Catherine Frot) has dedicated her life to music and performing for an entourage of vacuous, superficially adoring high society friends. The fly in the ointment here, however, is that Marguerite is woefully tone-deaf, delusional in her self-belief of a supreme talent which years of false adulation have instilled. Transposed to post-First World War France, Xavier Giannoli draws on the true story of Florence Foster Jenkins, the American soprano who performed behind closed doors before an ill-advised Carnegie Hall appearance.
Infamously remembered for her supreme cat-strangling capabilities, it is a pity for the French director that a soon to be released Meryl Streep led Stephen Frears biopic will likely overshadow this tragicomic Gallic incantation. Frot, fully deserving of her recently acquired César, is sublime as the blissfully, painfully ignorant leading lady. The actress instils Marguerite with an ethereal, infantile quality which is well suited to a character whose head is firmly stuck in the clouds. This surety and dreamlike determination is admirable and pitiful in equal measure as her detachment from reality slowly grows.
Charlie Kaufman’s eponymous Anomalisa stands out from the crowd with an individual voice and Marguerite’s less than dulcet tones have the same effect. Cinematographer Glynn Speeckaert paints a pallet bordering on monochrome for the dull, penguin-suited masses to contrast the elegantly colourful Marguerite. Pierre-Jean Larroque’s excellent period costume design further emphasises her singular vibrancy with rich reds. A murdering of La Marseillaise, draped in the Tricolore as Joan of Arc, is a particular high point, or indeed low point, depending on point of view. Anchored around an unarguably wonderful leading lady, Giannoli’s film never asks us to laugh at Marguerite but she’s as much a figure to be pitied as applauded. This pull of the heartstrings is well balanced by the director, unfortunately he throws out a number of other threads which are left trailing in her wake.
Fledgling journalist Lucien (Sylvain Dieuaide) and anarchic sidekick Kyrill (Aubert Fenoy), along with aspiring singer Hazel (Christa Théret), form a trio of young hopefuls whose initial derision evolves to genuine admiration. Starved of the limelight their new idol occupies, these characters are not as fully rounded as they could be. Marguerite’s husband (André Marcon) – whose love and attention she craves above all else – is adulterous and entirely undeserving of her affection but as the film progresses his concern with being cruel to be kind, by breaking the truth to her after many years of deceit, becomes his primary concern. This is a poignant, simultaneously jubilant and deeply sad championing of singing like nobody’s listening. It’s unlikely that Puccini is on many people’s go to list of singing in the shower songs but after seeing Marguerite you may just want to give it a go.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens