A song in her heart

French 'Marguerite' adopts America's legendary bad singer

In less than a week, "American Idol" will air its final broadcast after 15 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 the infamous American story of Florence Foster Jenkins as a fictionalized French one. (Later in the year, we'll see Meryl Streep as the star of Stephen Frears' film about Jenkins.)

While retaining many details of Jenkins' story, "Marguerite" mythologizes her as Marguerite Dumont. The name seems a conscious evocation of the actress Margaret Dumont, who acted as 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, her regal opacity when it comes to her lack of singing ability proves good for many a laugh.

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 there is 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 twins 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.

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!"

Rated R for brief graphic nudity and sexual content, and a scene of drug use. Two hours, 9 minutes.

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