How is it possible that someone who’s completely off-key thought to go on stage and sing in front of a large audience?

Xavier Giannoli’s Marguerite sets the stage: It’s 1920s Paris and Baroness Marguerite Dumont dreams of one day becoming a famous opera singer. The catch? Unbeknownst to her, she’s completely tone-deaf and trying to stretch well beyond the all-too-evident limits of her melodic dysfunction. For many years, Marguerite has performed private recitals on her luxurious estate, harboring the delusion that she’s indeed a great singer with the collusion of by-invitation only guests and sycophantic acquaintances—all the while massacring the greatest songs with her glass-shattering vocal contortions. “Divinely off-key,” is how one critic offers her ambiguous praise in a major newspaper, extolling the strange intensity of her singing. Unfazed and hopelessly dazzled by the art of performance, Marguerite latches onto her next and biggest objective: a high-profile public recital buoyed by ambitious arias in the heart of Paris. What could possibly go wrong?

Inspired by the true story of Florence Foster Jenkins—a notoriously out-of-tune American soprano who, despite her remarkably bad voice, bankrolled a music career that ended with a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall—Marguerite is winningly portrayed with Catherine Frot returning to the big screen following a three-year absence. Giannoli, who competed twice In Competition at Cannes with 2006’s The Singer and 2009’s In the Beginning, returns with this sixth feature film.

Marguerite opens on March 11 at the Paris Theatre and the Angelika Film Center in NYC.

When you found out about Florence Foster Jenkins, did you immediately want to put a different spin on it as opposed to making a more straightforward biopic?

Immediately. That’s how I feel about cinema. I’ve made many movies based on true stories, but I’m not interested in making documentaries or biopics. I’m more like a painter, but painting something real. When I heard Florence Foster Jenkins’ voice on the radio in France 15 years ago, I heard a crazy voice. It of course made me laugh, but laughter is not enough for me. There’s something deeper and it deals with emotions. I wanted to know everything about this woman and her reality. How is it possible that someone who’s completely off-key thought to go on stage and sing in front of a large audience? I started investigating as a journalist because I used to be one. And that was just the beginning for me. After I started to write, I didn’t know if she was a real person or a fictional character. There’s Florence Foster Jenkins’ reality and many details about her life, but there’s also my reality and how I view the world and what I think it means to be human.

How did you transition into filmmaking?

I studied at Sorbonne University in Paris to become a teacher, but I quit because I was obsessed with cinema. I didn’t go to film school. I felt a bit like an assistant of cinema, so I started writing my own short films. By chance I won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and it was a complete coincidence that the jury president in ’98 was Martin Scorsese, my favorite director. L’Interview was about cinema and, again, based on a true story. It’s about a journalist who interviews Ava Gardner, but through the intercom on the street because she refused to let him into her house. It’s very funny and, of course, the interview was a humiliating disaster. That short was important because it was suddenly possible for me to make my first feature, but four years down the line. Marguerite is my sixth feature and they’re all very personal. I’m not a studio director, I’m my own producer, I write my own films, I always choose the ideas for my films, and I hope the audience will be there.

The adage is true: life is stranger than fiction. But you use that as a mere starting point.

I don’t know what Stephen Frears’ film with Meryl Streep will be like, but for me, when I read everything about this woman, it was not enough. Okay, it’s funny. Okay, this strange life is interesting. But there was something missing for me: What is art? What is loneliness? So I invented the love story about her husband. I need fiction to go deeper into Florence’s life. I’m only using three or four pieces of music from the real story, but I also needed a symphony orchestra. [Laughs]

It’s evident in your work that you have a great appreciation for actors. When did you start thinking that Catherine Frot might be a good fit to play the role of Marguerite?

First of all, I’m very moved because Catherine won the César for Best Actress a week ago. She told me that Marguerite was her life achievement. Catherine is a huge star in France—I happen to think that she’s the number one star—and audiences love her, but she’s a bit of an outsider. She’s definitely not in the star system and we don’t know anything about her private life. She’s not in the papers and she doesn’t like talking to journalists. Marguerite, in her old-fashioned world, is an outsider as well. Marguerite isn’t part of the game much like Catherine isn’t in all the things she’s done. I knew there was something happening in Catherine’s life at the time because she got divorced and she had a lot going on. I didn’t want to know everything, but on set, I could feel that this was more than a film for her. I think Marguerite was very important for her to stay alive, to understand something about what life is, what loneliness is, and how your art can save you.

I remember seeing Catherine alone on stage for Samuel Beckett’s Oh les beaux jours and she was absolutely amazing. For me, there was evidence that she was the one to play this part. She’s not someone who needs to talk a lot about her character because she’s instinctual. When she read the script for Marguerite, immediately, she just understood. She said, “For me, there’s no problem. I can feel who she is.” She told me, “There’s a problem with her voice, but that problem of course represents her pain and the loneliness she feels in her marriage, in her life.” She understood the paradox right away. Marguerite is very eccentric and funny, but she’s also deeply alone as well.

Marguerite has a dream but absolutely no skills to achieve it. Was it challenging to strike the right balance between the comedy and the tragedy in the writing process?

Oh, it’s very simple. The first line that I wrote was, “We all need illusion to stay alive.” That’s the line that best describes the character and the entire film for me. And all the other characters around her have to deal with that reality as well. I thought a lot about joy when I was writing the script because I love this woman. Marguerite’s alone in her castle, but suddenly, she meets these young people who inspire her to test her freedom. What is it to be a woman in this old-fashioned world? When do you say enough is enough, I want to feel alive, I want to take charge of my own life, and decide go on the stage? It’s like being at the left and right ends of a piano. The left end is about her loneliness, about her crying out for love. The right end, the melody of the film, is about her eccentricity and her desire to literally wear wings on her back and sing in front of an audience, even if she’s completely off-key. I think this paradox was the most important thing for me.

One of my favorite lines in the film is when Marguerite looks down at the portrait they run of her in the paper and says, “She looks quite mad! I love it.”

[Laughs] Thanks for saying that! I love this line, too. She’s completely crazy, you know? I also love it when she says, “Money doesn’t matter. What matters is having it.” In France, the audience laughed at this because a lot of directors were making films about social issues and money at the time. For me, it was important to be completely anti-conformist. And suddenly, the film was a great success in France. This character is the complete opposite of what you might expect in this kind of cinema. For me, it was a big surprise and it was cool. She’s funny, you know?

You also found the perfect person to play Atos Pezzini, another incredibly funny and eccentric character who’s of course blackmailed into becoming Marguerite’s vocal coach.

Michel Fau is not only an actor but also a theatre director. He’s not well-known in France and he’s definitely not a star, but I saw him many times on stage. He’s completely anti-conformist, very classical and very crazy. Immediately, Pezzini looks like a Tim Burton character with the black hair and black eyes. [Laughs] There’s something comic about him because he’s very mean. I loved that because there’s a tenderness behind that, too. You love to hate him because he’s very rude with Marguerite. Everybody’s lying to her all the time and he hates her from the very beginning, so I loved this idea. When I was watching him listening to her sing on set, it was a disaster because I was laughing so much. The sound engineer was furious with me. Pezzini doesn’t move and you see everything happen only in his eyes. He’s just sitting there like a French king with his hand on his scepter. That’s what genius looks like with an actor—less is more! The audience laughs so much in this scene so I love watching it in the cinema. Pezzini’s such a hypocrite. He tells her, “It’s very interesting. Very personal! You must’ve worked hard to achieve your skills.”

Do you normally enjoy watching your films with the audience?

Sometimes. This is my most comic film so hearing people laugh is very new for me. When you write a line in your kitchen and it gets a laugh in a theater in New York, it’s very emotional. And I don’t make comedies. Of course, there were very important influences like Sunset Boulevard and Billy Wilder. From the very beginning, I wanted to say something about cruelty and about tenderness. Pezzini is very cruel with Marguerite but, hopefully, you see the tender side of him because I think that’s what life is like. We need love, but life is also violent and cruel.

What surprised you about making Marguerite that you maybe didn’t anticipate?

I was afraid about the voice. I was very afraid because we know what Florence Foster Jenkins sounded like. It was difficult to find the voice that’s both comical and emotional. It took a lot of work because nobody had recorded anything like this. And my sound engineer won the César for Best Sound. [Laughs] I was very proud of this technical award because we worked very hard, not only on the quality of the music and the voice but the dialogue, too. The voice is at the center of this character and you can feel everything in a voice. The voice is at the center of all of us. With Marguerite, you can hear in her voice her loneliness. She’s alone in this world. Marguerite is about an opera singer who’s out of tune. It’s about beauty in a world of violence and hypocrisy.

What do you have planned next?

I would love to make a film in the U.S. because I’m obsessed with actors and there are so many beautiful actors here. But it’s very difficult to raise the money, find the producer, and all of that when you’re a French director. But I’m writing at the moment. I don’t know if it will be a French film or if I’ll try to make it in America. The character is a war correspondent who’s investigating a very strange and supernatural mystery. He’s a very rational guy, a journalist who needs proof in order to believe. Suddenly, when he’s face-to-face with an inexplicable fact, it changes his life forever. I was raised Christian and having that religious education was important to me, but I’m now fighting with it all the time. [Laughs] So I had to write about that.

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