It is somewhat befitting, if not foretelling, that when we first come face to face with Marguerite she chooses to perform ‘Der Holle Rache Kocht in meinem Herzen’. Directly translated it reads, ‘The vengeance of Hell burns in my heart’ – and yes, when she opens her mouth and almost animalistic sounds reverberate outwards, one is inclined to think she is possessed.
This is where our story begins; Marguerite Dumont, played by the impeccable Catherine Frot, is performing for a little soiree of her friends in 1920s France. In a room filled with bejewelled women and men in their finest suits, she seems somewhat out of place.
For those familiar with this aria, the moments leading up to the infamous high F are cringe-worthy horror at its best. It’s a musical bloodbath as she destroys every note with her staccato stabs in the dark. She appears almost sadistic as she torments her guests and violates their eardrums, all the while with a smile. The problem is, she thinks she sounds amazing, an illusion reinforced by her guests’ false applause at the end – although they may just be applauding the fact that it’s over for another year.
Marguerite adores the applause, she revels in it. She has been lied to for so long by others and even herself that the lies have become her reality. She lives her life out in theatrical proportions, every move exaggerated. In her search for an identity, she adopts those of her favourite opera characters. She has money, a husband, and a large social circle but she is not content, she craves something more. Whilst she may be surrounded by all this worldly happiness, it is as real as the set at the local theatre. These two-dimensional depictions of happiness lack any depth, any meaning, and any substance.
Seemingly unaware and blissfully ignorant, she gives away her true feelings in her eyes. These glassy orbs become crystal balls, reflecting fear and disappointment. There’s an emptiness to them, a hollow cold that leaves one uncomfortable if you let yourself get lost in them. This is where Catherine Frot’s true talent comes to the fore, taking this potentially slapstick character and giving her unexpected depth.
One of the film’s more profound statements comes from Madelbos (Denis Mpunga): “Perfection is not about doing a great and beautiful deed. It is about doing what one does with greatness and beauty.” If one applies this to Marguerite’s life then her singing is perfect. She has taken on her task and does it to the best of her ability, she pushes herself daily to improve. She genuinely places every ounce of energy she has into singing.
It’s in her commitment, her perseverance, that Marguerite transcends its farcical roots and instead offers something we can all relate to. It’s one of the most beautiful, harrowing films in years; even if you go in expecting a comedy, you may walk away from it with tears in your eyes.
Words by Matthew Hoy