Sour Notes

Like its subject, French import 'Marguerite' is off-key

What lessons can we draw from the life of socialite and amateur opera singer Florence Foster Jenkins? Director Xavier Giannoli’s fictionalization, Marguerite, set in 1920s France, supposes only tragic ones.

After inheriting her father’s fortune in the early 1900s, Jenkins, a former piano teacher, built up a fashionable social circle and pursued her dream of a career in music, despite possessing zero talent. Like Jenkins, the Baroness Marguerite Dumont (the agreeably sweet Catherine Frot) has an unkillable ambition to perform opera in public, though her voice is like that of a tortured screech owl.

With the connivance of Mandelbos, her butler and photographer (Denis Mpunga in a part modeled after Erich von Stroheim’s Max in Sunset Boulevard), the neglected wife assembles a group of freakish supporters to encourage her as she heads for the stage where, dressed in angel wings (like Jenkins), she massacres the classic arias.

It’s likely that Giannoli named his heroine after actress Margaret Dumont, the superbly oblivious matron so often needled by Groucho in the Marx Brothers’ movies. If only this Marguerite had the real Dumont’s ability to tune the world out; the assumption is that Marguerite’s passion for music is simply the tragedy of a woman seeking the attention of her disaffected husband—a sentimental approach to the Jenkins legend.

Barely sketched in: the romantic subplot of a critic and a young singer of genuine talent, as well as a Dadaist backdrop that never pays off. (In the film’s single best scene, Marguerite causes a riot in an avant-garde cabaret with her key-free performance of the French national anthem.) But this movie is in no position to mock, since it never finds its own key and flounders its way to a haywire finale.

‘Marguerite’ opens April 29 and Summerfield Cinemas, 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. 707.522.0719.

Sonoma County Library