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(2016) *** 1/2 R
129 min. Fidélité Films. Director: Xavier Giannoli. Cast: Catherine Frot, AndrĂ© Marcon, Michel Fau, Christa Theret.

/content/films/4902/1.jpgIn less than a week, American Idol will air its final broadcast after fifteen seasons. The once-upon-a-time blockbuster television hit made its bones with talented singers but just as much with untalented ones, served up as objects of mockery. And so it is with suspiciously good timing that Cohen Media Group releases Xavier Giannoli’s droll Marguerite, the “inspired by a true story” tale of an epically bad opera singer.

Co-written by director Giannoli and Marcia Romano, Marguerite recasts an infamous American story as a fictionalized French one. Later in the year, we’ll see Meryl Streep as the star of Stephen Frears’ Florence Foster Jenkins, the titular character being a real American figure. While retaining many details of her story, Marguerite mythologizes Jenkins as Marguerite Dumont. The name seems a conscious evocation of the actress Margaret Dumont, who essayed several clueless dowagers opposite the Marx Brothers. While wealthy, the middle-aged Marguerite isn’t quite a dowager, and how clueless she is remains in doubt, but her regal opacity when it comes to her lack of singing ability proves good for many a laugh.

Naturally, as with American Idol, those laughs bear (self-)examination. Why is Marguerite so funny to us, and why is her public humiliation allowed to continue for so long? The answers plumb both the best and worst instincts of human nature, and give Giannoli’s film a strong heartbeat. At the outset, Marguerite Dumont (Catherine Frot, pitch perfect even when pitch-imperfect) comes across as a purely comic figure: a woman so insulated by her wealth and privilege that she has lost touch with reality and how others perceive her. While that estimation isn’t entirely wrong, the 1921-set opening sequence also immediately puts the woman in the context of being exploited, as a couple of journalists barely contain their glee at having gatecrashed a private concert to get their earful.

Set aside the weirdness of it all (including peacocks strolling around the Dumont estate), and Marguerite reveals a rich complexity. Even her husband (Andre Marcon) admits, “She’s sort of a freak,” and carries on an affair behind her back, but he cannot bear to hurt his fragile flower, preferring to lie to her in every waking moment about their relationship and her “talent.” There is Marguerite’s self-delusion to consider, as well as her camp value (she sings, according to one enthusiastic wag, “divinely off-key...wildly off-key!”) and the transcendence of art, for consumers and the artist herself (with poignant fervor, Marguerite explains, “Music is all that matters to me”). In a post-war world slowly reconstructing itself, “The Screeching Baroness” presents a challenge to convention, a distraction either appalling or enthralling, and a personal minefield to those who know her and tread carefully around her dreams.

A subplot involving one of the journalists, Lucien Beaumont (Sylvain Dieuaide), falling for actually talented songstress Hazel (Christa Théret) intriguingly mirrors Marguerite’s story in its contrast of singing ability and its reception, as well as in Lucien’s inability to tell Hazel the truth of his feelings for her. In another twinning, Marguerite gets a vocal coach in Atos Pezzini (Michel Fau in a brilliant comic turn), an opera star with his own self-delusions about his talent and public reception: perhaps he can't (or, at least, shouldn't) look as far down his nose at Marguerite as he first thinks. What holds us some of us back, Marguerite asks, while others of us are irrepressible? In the end, the film may simply put you in mind of poet Matthew Arnold’s plaintive lyrics “Ah, love, let us be true/To one another!”

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Aspect ratios: 2.39:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1

Street date: 8/2/2016

Distributor: Cohen Media Group

Cohen Media Group delivers a lovely Blu-ray special edition of Marguerite, a film ripe for revisiting on the heels of the Meryl Streep-Stephen Frears take Florence Foster Jenkins. As explained in detail in the interview included in the bonus features, the cinematographic look of the film was very carefully considered, and the results are borne out by the accurately rendered picture quality of the Cohen disc. The beautiful and intentionally "flawed" image has a somewhat low-contrast look, part of a scheme to evoke film with a digital camera. Blacks aren't especially deep, then (resulting in a loss of shadow detail), but they are consistent. Detail is generally sharp (and the textures of skin tones and clothing are vibrant); when detail goes a bit soft somewhere in the frame, it's the result of the 1960s lenses used to achieve the effect. Color rendering is precise and rich, adding to the painted-with-light style.

The disc offers the option of lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 or lossy Dolby Digital 5.1. On my system, the difference is quite noticeable, with plummier audio coming from the lossless track. Both tracks offer subtle ambience and placement (happily less subtle in riotous performance and crowd scenes), pure and full music, and nicely prioritized dialogue.

Best among the bonus features is an "Interview with Xavier Giannoli" (18:05, HD) is actually an onstage Q&A—from September 2015— covering the origins of the project in the true story of Florence Foster Jenkins (and one particular photograph), his approach to evoking period and contextual historical themes, the influence of bygone actress Margaret Dumont on his writing of Marguerite, casting, visual concept and cinematography, the themes of deceit and cruelty, and the significance of the character of Madelbos.

Also included on the disc are four "Deleted Scenes" (7:17, HD—"Divo," "Smoking Den," "Hazel's Performance," and "Artemio's Performance"—and the "Theatrical Trailer" (2:09, HD).


Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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