Live by Night
The key question behind Live by Night isn’t so much “Why did they bother?” as “What went wrong?”
After Florence Foster Jenkins gave a concert at Carnegie Hall in 1944 (she rented the venue herself), Earl Wilson, the gossip columnist for the New York Post, observed drily, "She can sing anything but notes." Despite her notoriously screech-owl tones, Jenkins seemed to truly believe she was a brilliant coloratura soprano, and moved through the world in uninterrupted delusion. The crowds who flocked to her recitals watched with awed fascination, thinking, "Am I allowed to laugh at this? Is she in on the joke?" There are YouTube clips of her recordings. You may wonder, "How bad could she be?" Very, very bad as it turns out.
The César-winning "Marguerite," directed by Xavier Giannoli, moves the action to France, and features a riveting performance from Catherine Frot as Marguerite. The script (co-written by Giannoli and Marcia Romano) disintegrates in the too-lengthy final act, and an "explanation" is provided for what has really been going on with Marguerite all along. The explanation is a disappointment and not nearly as interesting as the main question that buzzes through the film, experienced by every person who comes into contact with Marguerite: Does she know how bad she is? How ... how can she not know?
It's 1921. Marguerite Dumont lives on an estate in the French countryside with her husband Georges (André Marcon). She is an active member of the Amadeus Music Club (they depend on her financial support) and serves as the headliner for their concerts. Georges writhes with embarrassment at his wife's insistence on singing publicly, but he has never pulled her aside in their 20 years of marriage and said, "Honey, you stink." How can he break the news to her now? He is filled with guilt. He hides in his study. He watches her run around the yard in a Brünnhilde costume and knows he has helped create the lunatic asylum in which he lives.
The opening sequence of "Marguerite," an Amadeus Club charity concert on the Dumont estate, is well-done, and Giannoli artfully creates a buildup of expectation for Marguerite's solo (it is as though Maria Callas herself is about to appear). The main characters, those who will be drawn into Marguerite's circle, are introduced: Lucien, a young journalist (Sylvain Dieuaide); Lucien's monocle-wearing anarchist friend Kyril (Aubert Fenoy); Hazel (Christa Théret) a young conservatory student. Marguerite, peacock feather on the top of her head, glides through the crowded room, taking her place by the piano. It is as though she is used to singing for Shahs and Emperors. And then she launches into Mozart's tremendously difficult "Queen of the Night," and you hear the voice for the first time.