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Off-Key but On-Target: Marguerite

The Oscars may be over, but there is one more performance from last year you shouldn’t miss, now that the film is being released to American theaters: Catherine Frot in Marguerite. It received four Cesar Awards (France’s equivalent to the Oscar) including Best Actress for its luminous leading lady.

You will also want to see Marguerite as a point of comparison to the upcoming film in which Meryl Streep plays Florence Foster Jenkins, the infamous society woman of the 1930s and 40s who loved to sing classical music and did it badly. The American film, I gather, is biographical, while Marguerite is an imagining inspired by Jenkins and set in 1920s France. (Jenkins was also the subject of a wonderful one-woman show called Souvenir that starred Judy Kaye.)

The success of the film hinges on our ability to empathize with the title character as played by Frot, a wealthy baroness whose sweet, sad-eyed face reflects innocence and a kind of purity that is completely at odds with her wildly off-key performances of operatic arias. Strangers might laugh at the sounds that emanate from her larynx, but she is surrounded by friends, servants, recipients of her generosity, and a husband who no longer loves her but will do everything in his power to keep her from being ridiculed.

Writer-director Xavier Giannoli (who collaborated on the screenplay with Marcia Romano) captures our hearts with this touching portrait and populates the film with colorful and interesting characters: a husband (André Marcon) who feels trapped in a loveless marriage, a mysterious butler/valet (Denis Mpunga) who attends to her much as Erich von Stroheim does with Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd., a talented young singer (Christa Théret) whose glorious voice is everything Marguerite’s is not, and a former opera star (Michel Fau) who is reduced to tutoring a talent-free woman whose heart is in the right place.

Marguerite is a poignant and affecting film that has lingered in my mind, along with Frot’s glowing performance. At a time when Hollywood is releasing its low-grade product (as it tends to do this time of year) there is more reason than ever to seek out high-quality imports such as this.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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