Xavier Giannoli’s Marguerite hinges on one simple joke: the fact that its eponymous character, a wealthy woman in 1920s France, fancies herself a coloratura soprano even though she has zero vocal talent. Marguerite (Catherine Frot) has managed to feed her fantasy of self-grandeur because her entourage hasn’t been able to tell her the truth about her always singing off-key. That includes her husband, butler, vocal coach, and even members of the press. While the sublime and the ridiculous may never be too far apart, as one of the characters claims, one never gets the sense that Marguerite’s silliness, if not madness, borders on beautiful.
Marguerite may be incredibly affected by opera, and even constantly listen to it, but she’s unable to ever create anything other than cringe-inducing sounds. The audience is, on the other hand, less likely to be moved by the normally unavoidable emotional force of the opera, as it’s deflated by the clownishness of Marguerite’s depiction. Those around her refuse to break her bubble not because they fear hurting her feelings, but because they can’t get enough of the distinctly sexist pleasure of watching a woman make a complete fool of herself in increasingly public ways.
The film introduces Marguerite at her lavish home, where she’s throwing a party, which includes uniformed help, a struggling young singer with an actually gifted voice, and scheming party crashers passing for erudite celebrities of the art world. These side characters hint at interesting subplots involving betrayal and extortion that never materialize in the end. When the lavishly dressed Marguerite comes out of her bedroom and begins to sing out of tune, the film suggests that self-delusion is necessarily theatrical—that it needs exaggeration and a willing audience. But it never really elaborates on why Marguerite’s horrific singing is met by applause, euphoria, and the delivery of hundreds of white roses the next day as a congratulation.
While Marguerite, with its stark lighting and opulent melancholy, may bring Sunset Boulevard to mind, it also evokes The Truman Show. But instead of approaching the figure of the tragic non-star by muddying the line between fantasy and reality, memory and fabrication, Giannolli consistently glosses every sequence with a stagey kind of humor, albeit at the main character’s expense. The camera doesn’t take Marguerite’s humanity seriously until the very end, when she literally bleeds on stage. Throughout the film, her cheating husband avoids her, no longer thinking of her as a woman so much as “a kind of monster,” and while a last-minute attempt to rekindle their love in the face of death may have been meant to mimic the tragedy of an operatic structure, it rather emulates the frivolity of a soap opera.