One of opera’s most notorious divas was also one of its most tone-deaf. In the early half of the 20th century, an American heiress named Florence Foster Jenkins captivated audiences with her unintentionally terrible opera performances. Only a few recordings of Jenkins survive, but the ones that do illustrate just how bad she really was, as the screeching soprano ignores all sense of melody or rhythm. But Jenkins’ notoriety didn’t just stem from the fact that she was a bad singer; there are, after all, plenty of those in the world. What made Jenkins so remarkable was that she was convinced she was one of opera’s most talented performers, and even as her popularity grew and audiences openly snickered when she sang, she dismissed all criticism outright. Carefully screened private performances helped her maintain her delusions of grandeur, and Jenkins gave only one public performance: a 1944 recital at Carnegie Hall that critics savaged. She died a month later after a heart attack.
The real-life Jenkins will soon be portrayed on screen by Meryl Streep, who’s playing the wealthy American soprano in Stephen Frears’ upcoming biopic, but Xavier Giannoli’s French-language dramedy Marguerite focuses on a fictional Jenkins, a fabulously wealthy French baroness whose fanatical love of opera is only surpassed by her complete lack of talent. The result is a poignant character study of an oblivious woman whose love of the spotlight is both heartbreaking and hysterical.
Catherine Frot won the César best actress award for her role as the titular Marguerite Dumont, and it’s easy to see why: As the shrieking diva, Frot takes a role that so easily could’ve devolved into caricature and imbues Marguerite with a sense of humanity. Like Marguerite’s audience, you’re never quite sure whether to cry or laugh when she takes the stage, but Frot’s atonal squawking means that more often than not, it’s the latter. Marguerite’s husband (André Marcon) relies on his wife’s wealth while sleeping with another woman, and her butler (Denis Mpunga) devotedly photographs his employer in over-the-top costumes. Together, the two amplify her narcissism by creating a protective bubble around her, meticulously clipping all negative press from the newspaper and ordering crushing amounts of white flowers from Marguerite’s “admirers.” When the roguish newspaperman Lucien Beaumont (Sylvain Dieuaide) and his anarchist cohort (Aubert Fenoy) sneak in to one of Marguerite’s strictly private performances, he’s so fascinated by her that he writes an ambiguous review that could be read as overwhelmingly positive or scathingly negative. Marguerite, of course, takes it as the highest praise and the inspiration to finally conduct a public performance.
Giannoli structures the film in chapters, each introduced with a title card and a photo of Marguerite in costume, and the overly long narrative starts to lose steam by the time the final act rolls around. (Beaumont’s underdeveloped subplot about falling in love with another young opera singer completely evaporates.) Still, Frot salvages any of the film’s shortcomings with her nuanced performance of Marguerite, a sweet and isolated woman completely oblivious to her lack of talent. B+