Meet 'Marguerite,' A Tone-Deaf Opera Singer Who's Determined To Perform

Mar 11, 2016
Originally published on March 11, 2016 8:27 pm

Imagine the worst opera singer ever. Now imagine that she's determined to perform in public. That's the premise of an award-winning French satire that's based on a true story. It's called Marguerite, and it follows a middle-aged socialite by the same name.

Marguerite has very little to do. While the roaring 1920s roar elsewhere and her husband spends all his time with a mistress, Marguerite sits in her Downton Abbey-style mansion outside Paris surrendering her soul to music.

She adores opera, and is wealthy enough that she can sponsor musical recitals for charity with young guest singers. These are invitation-only affairs where her wealthy friends reward her charitable generosity by being charitable about the way she ends the concerts — with her own, shall we say, unique musical stylings. Stylings with no sense of pitch, rhythm or, for that matter, talent.

Marguerite is surrounded by servants who applaud and friends who are polite. (Her husband usually claims car trouble kept him away.) But I hear your question: How could she not know? Wouldn't someone tell her? Here's how it works: After one recital, when a young singer is ushered into Marguerite's presence to say thank you, Marguerite looks up — vulnerable and sweet — and says, "You heard me miss all my high notes." The young performer, not wishing to hurt or be impolite, says, "No, it sounded fine." Self-knowledge will have to wait.

There were, however, some uninvited guests. A young music critic writes in his paper that Marguerite sang as if she were trying to "exorcise an inner demon" — innocently, she takes that as praise. There's also an anarchist poet who invites her to perform at a public concert. Marguerite's husband is terrified she'll find out they've all been lying to her, but it's an anarchist performance and she kind of fits right in.

Marguerite's story of misplaced confidence is based loosely on that of Florence Foster Jenkins, an American laughingstock whose ghastly public renditions of some of the same music became a best-selling novelty record in the 1950s. It was called The Glory (????) of the Human Voice.

Meryl Streep will soon play Jenkins in another movie, but it's hard to imagine anyone improving on the mix of hilarity and heartbreak this transplanted, fictional version achieves. As director Xavier Giannoli pushes his leading lady closer and closer to public humiliation, Catherine Frot's Marguerite becomes every bit as haunting as you expect her to be laughable, walking barefoot in the rain after an evening of opera, then squawking in rehearsals like the peacocks that wander her estate's lawn. The more ridiculous Marguerite becomes, the more you want to keep this misguided, innocent, music-besotted creature from being hurt.

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Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

OK. Now imagine the worst opera singer ever, one who has no sense of pitch or rhythm. Now imagine she is determined to perform in public. This is the premise of an award-winning French film. It's a satire, but it's actually based on a true story. The film is called "Marguerite," and critic Bob Mondello calls it a site for sore ears.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Marguerite is a middle-aged socialite with very little to do. The roaring '20s are roaring elsewhere. Her husband spends all his time with a mistress, and Marguerite sits in her "Downtown Abbey"-style mansion outside Paris surrendering her soul to music.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MARGUERITE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESSES: (As characters, singing in foreign language).

MONDELLO: Marguerite adores opera and is wealthy enough that she can sponsor musical recitals for charity with young guest singers like the ones you're hearing now. These are invitation-only affairs where her wealthy friends reward her charitable generosity by being charitable about the way she ends the concerts. She does that with their own, shall we say, unique musical stylings.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MARGUERITE")

CATHERINE FROT: (As Marguerite Dumont, singing in foreign language).

MONDELLO: Marguerite is surrounded by servants who applaud, friends who are polite. Her husband usually claims car trouble kept him away. But I hear your question. How could she not know? Wouldn't someone tell her?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MARGUERITE")

FROT: (As Marguerite Dumont, singing in foreign language).

MONDELLO: Then, after the concert is over, the young singer you heard before is ushered into Marguerite's presence to say thank you for the cash she got for singing, and you see how this works. Marguerite looks up, vulnerable and sweet, and says, you heard me miss all my high notes.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MARGUERITE")

FROT: (As Marguerite Dumont, speaking French).

MONDELLO: And the young singer, not wishing to hurt or be impolite says...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MARGUERITE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character, speaking French).

MONDELLO: ...No, it sounded fine. Self-knowledge will have to wait. There were, however, some uninvited guests, a young music critic who writes in his paper that Marguerite sang as if she were trying to exorcise an inner demon. Innocently, she takes that as praise - also, an anarchist poet who invites her to perform at a public concert. Marguerite's husband is terrified she'll find out they've all been lying to her. But it's an anarchist performance raided by the police. She kind of fits right in.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MARGUERITE")

FROT: (As Marguerite Dumont, singing in foreign language).

MONDELLO: Marguerite's story of misplaced confidence is based loosely on that of Florence Foster Jenkins, an American laughingstock whose ghastly public renditions of some of the same music became a best-selling novelty record in the 1950s. It was called "The Glory????" - with four question marks - "Of The Human Voice." Meryl Streep will soon play Jenkins in another movie, but it's hard to imagine anyone improving on the mix of hilarity and heartbreak this transplanted fictional version achieves.

As director Xavier Giannoli pushes his leading lady closer and closer to public humiliation, Catherine Frot's Marguerite becomes every bit as haunting as you expect her to be laughable, walking barefoot in the rain after an evening of opera then squawking in rehearsals like the peacocks that wander her estate's lawn. The more ridiculous Marguerite becomes, the more you want to keep this misguided, innocent, music-besotted creature from being hurt. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.