24 Lies a Second: Vocal Minority

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Vocal Minority

Well, after a few thin weeks, there is finally almost an embarrassment of riches when it comes to the films on release. What this means, of course, is that the worst-reviewed movies are getting all the attention and filling up all the multiplexes, while less obviously commercial fare like Xavier Giannoli's Marguerite just about manage to get a screen at the art house cinema, despite the fact that it has won numerous awards. In the words of Paul Weller back when he was in the Jam, this is the modern world.

Marguerite opens in 1920s France, with the country struggling to rebuild after the trauma of the First World War. The great and the good of Parisian society are doing their best to help the unfortunate by holding charitable events, and the film depicts one of these: a series of musical recitals held by a private club of arts-lovers in the home of Baron Dumont (Andre Marcon). Two Bohemian young fellows, Lucien and Kyril (Sylvain Dieuaide and Aubert Fenoy), have snuck in, looking for mischief, although Lucien finds himself rather taken by a young singer booked to perform, Hazel (Christa Theret). Everyone is anticipating the latest performance of the hostess, Marguerite (Catherine Frot), with the tacit understanding being that this is always something special.

But not all is as it seems, with the Baron faking the breakdown of his car in order to avoid being there to hear his wife sing. Soon enough the truth is revealed to the bemused young onlookers: Marguerite is one of the worst singers in the history of the world, incapable of carrying a tune in a bucket, and constantly about as far out of key as it is possible to be without starting to come back in again from the other side. She is oblivious to this, genuinely loves music, and is a generous patron of the arts. This, together with her own genuine sweetness of nature, means that no-one has had the heart to tell her just how badly she sings.

Lucien and Kyril are delighted by their discovery and write a mocking review praising the Baroness's performance – which she characteristically takes at face value. They encourage her in her dream of finally performing in public, despite the deep misgivings of the Baron himself...

It looks like being a bumper year for films about bad singing, as Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant have a film about Florence Foster Jenkins coming out soon, too. (She was a legendarily untalented American opera singer from the early years of the last century.) Marguerite is clearly based on the Jenkins story, albeit quite loosely – the film's first jaw-dropping moment of mangled coloratura comes with the Baroness' performance of Mozart's Queen of the Night, which was also a staple of the American diva's repertoire.

In case there was any doubt as to just how rotten Marguerite's performance is, Giannoli precedes it with a 'proper' rendition of the Flower Duet from Lakme, which is of course one of the loveliest things you will ever hear. For a while I thought Giannoli was making a point about the artificial distinction between 'good' and 'bad' art – the good singing is a marvellously uplifting, almost transcendent delight, while Marguerite's impassioned shrieking left me sore-sided and weeping with laughter. If this is his intent, it's not necessarily clear – the film on the whole is much subtler than that, and not the handsome costume comedy-drama it initially seems it might be.

Instead, it turns into much more of a character piece, concerned with just what makes a person so deluded. I was reminded of Neil Gaiman's take on the story of Emperor Norton as a man whose madness keeps him sane, and it seemed to me that the story also has echoes of the likes of Don Quixote and King Lear. Those are rather bold claims to make, but the quality of the film – its script, direction, and performances – seems to me to make them entirely justified. All the performances are storng, but central to the whole thing is Catherine Fort's deservedly award-winning turn – Marguerite could just have been a rather foolish and stupid woman, but Frot gives her such warmth and heart and sweetness that you are on her side throughout the story. (Also, a word in praise of Denis Mpunga, also, who is memorable as Marguerite's inscrutable butler.)

I find myself at a bit of a loss when it comes to deciding just how much I can say about Marguerite without spoiling its impact. As I said, this film is not just a classy comedy-drama about dreadful singing, but Giannoli manages the subtle shifts in tone and atmosphere with almost magical skill. I found my responses to what was on the screen changing dramatically, and for no reason I could obviously discern, so skilfully had the director worked with the material. Suffice to say that the climax of the film is profoundly moving and quite at odds with some elements of the early sections.

This is a film made with the greatest of subtlety and skill, that never seems to be openly manipulative: it never feels like one is being impelled to make a judgement about Lucien, for instance, who despite apparently being a nice guy is ultimately responsible for much of what happens to Marguerite. The relationship – the non-romance, perhaps one should say – between him and Hazel is also winningly written and played. But then the whole film impresses from start to finish. With the possible exception of some slightly pretentious moments, there is scarcely a bum note in the whole thing. Well, actually, there are bum notes by the dozen, but you know what I mean. Quite possibly one of the best films of the year.

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