Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Oct 24, 2015 3:27 am 
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Too bad she's bad

Eight years ago Giannoli made a sad, charming little film set in the present about a dance hall singer with Gérard Depardieu and Cécille de France, The Singer/Quand j'étais chanteur (R-V 2007). That has nothing at all to do with his present relatively elaborate, more impressive but less involving extravaganza set in the 1920's and based on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins, the rich American society lady who fancied herself an opera diva but couldn't sing in tune. French character actress Catherine Frot (The Page Turner, Me and My Sister) takes it on as the great role she's been waiting for all her life. For me, she is too sympathetic and not complex enough. We may expect more from Meryl Streep, soon to star in Stephen Frears's upcoming version of the Florence Foster Jenkins story.

Giannoli's film is touching and balanced -- kind to the character, showing her endearing dedication to music and the protectiveness of her husband Georges (an ultimately sympathetic André Marcon). But despite his avoiding crudity or cruelty, it's not clear Giannoli knows what to do with this material. Partly it's about embarrassment and loyalty, her husband's. He struggles but, touchingly, though he confesses his great unease to his mistress, he can't bear to tell his wife how bad she is. Partly it's about delusion and how people profit from it; and there is even a hint of delusions of grandeur toward the end. Partly it's about private versus public standards, because Frot's Marguerite Dumont can get by with her terrible singing as long as she does it in private chamber concerts with society guests who sneer behind their hands, or even when anarchists make use of he to mock the Marseillaise, she's happy, but when the big public concert comes, the public guffaws. But with all these threads there is no strong theme or emotional punch. The way Marguerite's fierce and overprotective black butler-accompanist-chauffeur Madelbos (Denis Mpunga) constantly photographs her is one more example of how the film fetishizes her and examines her but does not really let us get close to her as we got close to Depardieu's Alain Moreau in The Singer.

Frot makes the singing really, really awful, worse than Florence Foster Jenkins actually was, so no one misses the point -- but that also misses the real point that a miss is as good as a mile.

Everything is heavily produced from the start -- a contrast to the simplicity and authenticity that made The Singer feel right. Giannoli seems at times to want to produce something baroque and surreal. There is a louche failing tenor engaged to prepare Margaret, whose entourage includes a bearded lady card reader, a dwarf, a deaf pianist, and an Italianate young boyfriend. A lot of the scenes are too dark. We keep going back to the aristocratic husband on a country road seen in horizon with one of his fancy new motorcars, bought with his wife's money, breaking down as he's on the way to one of her performances that he'd like to avoid. This over two-hour film, which does have some impressively rhythmic editing, could have worked much better cut down to ninety minutes with countless unnecessary scenes and repetitions removed.

Marguerite, 127 mins., debuted at Venice; also showed at Telluride, Sept. 2015; French theatrical release 16 Sept. The French critics generally loved it; AlloCiné press rating 4.0. But they liked The Singer/Quand j'étais chanteur better (4.1). Screened for this review at the historic Left Bank cinema La Pagode, Paris, 24 Oct. 2015. It won four César awards including Best Actress. US release 11 March 2016 (29 Mar. Bay Area). Metacritic rating 74%.

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