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

Catherine Frot plays an opera-loving socialite in <em>Marguerite</em>. (Also pictured: Denis Mpunga)
Courtesy of Cohen Media Group
Catherine Frot plays an opera-loving socialite in Marguerite. (Also pictured: Denis Mpunga)

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.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.