Sometimes you might tell a little white lie because you don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. But the lies often end in tragedy.
This is the theme of the French film Marguerite, now in American theaters. Marguerite offers a sometimes amusing but ultimately painful “the emperor has no clothes” tale of a would-be singer who is so shielded from her own lack of talent that the ending can only be opera-tragic.
The film, based on a true story, opens in France in 1920 where a private charity recital is being staged at the chateau of wealthy Baroness Marguerite Dumont (Catherine Frot, playing a character whose name seems borrowed from Groucho Marx’s hapless leading lady). As the patron of the local Amadeus society, she has put herself on the program to sing to raise money. She butchers the “Queen of the Night” aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute. She doesn’t know how bad she is; she really can’t hear herself.
We gather her audience has been exposed to such travesties before, but she is the patron and it is for a good cause. They dutifully applaud her. Her husband, a developer facing financial problems, makes sure he has car problems as an excuse for arriving only after the terrible screeching ends.
Lucien Beaumont (Sylvain Dieuaide), a newspaper reviewer, and his artist friend Kyrill Von Priest (Aubert Fenoy) have snuck into the invite-only affair and witnessed the farce. But writing a bad review seems too easy. So at Kyrill’s urging, Lucien decides to praise her to the skies. She’s a great new voice!
Opera is Marguerite’s love, her life. She has a thousand musical scores. She has her trusty butler and piano accompanist Madelbos (Denis Mpunga) photograph of her with costumes and props she has collected from her favorite works. He knows she can’t sing but is devoted to protecting her from ridicule.
When Marguerite reads Lucien’s review she is thrilled and visits him and Kyrill with thoughts of taking her singing into the wider world. Lucien is having second thoughts about the encouragement he’s given her, but Kyrill invites her to perform at a gathering he’s arranging at a small club. Why would he do such a thing?
Kyrill has pulled together an audience of businessmen, workers, solders, and a general cross-section of society. He comes on stage to loudly denounce every group represented there. As some boo and begin walking out, he has Marguerite come out in a white robe on which he projects a movie of World War I’s carnage as she does a horrendous rendition of the “Marseillaise,” the French national anthem.
Those familiar with Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead will see the similarity between the nihilist Kyrill, who wants to destroy all values, and that novel’s character Ellsworth Toohey. The latter villain, who like Lucien writes a newspaper column, wants to tear down the great and the beautiful, and does so by praising the mediocre and the ugly.
But Marguerite does not see this. And Lucien, while feeling guilt, cannot bring himself to tell her the truth. She thinks the problem was the audience and decides to book an opera house and give a recital for Paris sophisticates.
Though her husband is hardly faithful or attentive to her, he has enough love for her to dread the thought of her making a fool of herself before the world. But he finds it difficult to tell her the truth. He hopes a voice coach he convinces her to bring in to help her prepare for her recital will tell her how awful she sounds. However, in part because Madelbos has blackmailed the coach to take the job, the voice coach will not tell her the truth, either.
What will happen when she performs before an impartial audience? Can anything show her the truth?
Marguerite is eccentric, but she is essentially innocent of major self-deception because she really can’t hear how bad she sounds. Her love for opera and singing is admirable, and she is a generous benefactress. And while some who shield her from the truth have base motives, her husband, Madelbos, and, in the end, Lucien, do care about her. They are torn every step of the way between destroying her aspirations themselves or letting her aspirations and her sense of self-worth be destroyed by the derisive laughter and ridicule of an objective crowd. They are morally weak.
This film shows that it can be terribly painful to be honest with the ones you love, just as it can be painful to be honest with yourself. But refusing to face reality will not change the facts. Just as refusing to acknowledge a physical ailment can delay treatment and lead to the death of the body, so refusing to acknowledge facts about one’s self or others, including limitations, can lead to the death of the soul.
If you appreciate that being truthful can be hard, you will find the film Marguerite a thought-provoking way to fortify your own soul.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.