Willful ignorance as a character trait typically evokes annoyance in those who witness it — at least in real life. In many French films, however, a character who’s willfully ignorant is portrayed in the twee manner, encouraging us to believe it is their blissful view of the world we should accept, not the real one. In the beloved Amélie, for instance, Audrey Tautou’s title character romps through the world with rose-colored glasses, but imagine for a moment that every step of the way, Amélie’s friends are quietly looming with the bad news that all of her fantasies are bullshit. This is Marguerite.
Catherine Frot, who may not be recognizable to American audiences but who has an illustrious career in France, plays Marguerite, a middle-aged, lovelorn baroness who possesses all the faculties for enjoying music and none of the talent to sing, despite her many efforts. At the heart of the story is a lie that becomes a bigger lie, as everyone who surrounds Marguerite is complicit in feeding her delusions of vocal grandeur. But it is Frot’s performance — full of warmth, humor and hope — that carries the story and even leads to some laugh-out-loud moments.
Frot adopts the poses of 1920s opera singers with apparent ease, her face conveying melodramatic emotion even as Marguerite exudes her own endearing kindness. In an early moment, to sing before an audience who’s experienced enough to know what they’re in for, Marguerite dons a gown like a peacock, complete with the eye-feather sticking straight out of her head. She’s both awkward and somehow beautiful, much like her singing, which struggles to hit any key a human would find pleasurable to the ear. This awkward-peacock theme continues throughout the film, both visually and aurally, with close-ups on eyes — even a giant eye sculpture — and the spectral call of an actual peacock Marguerite owns haunting every scene, sounding more than vaguely like “He-elp!”
As Marguerite struggles to regain her husband’s attentions, those calls grow louder. It’s no wonder one of the film’s 11 César nominations was for its sound design, as the combination of the bird, the off-key singing and the incessant and imperfect crackle of a phonograph wraps every gauzy picture with a reminder that what is beautiful is often flawed.
The film often attempts to mimic the composition of an oil painting. Crushed blacks abound, with accents of Prussian blue and a muted red creating a textured look, where the edges seem to dissolve into a black velvet curtain, all of it framing Marguerite and the motley crew of characters who come to love and support her. Their dialogue is filled with deliberate, telling lines, and director Xavier Giannoli allows these characters to develop in small but surprising ways, which at first seems like a mistake, taking the spotlight off of Marguerite, but becomes another imperfection with interesting consequences.
Marguerite is a film for those sour enough to enjoy schadenfreude but with enough conscience to prefer it not be too tragic — and even a little charming.