Catherine Frot: Sings Up A Storm In Marguerite

April 18, 2016
It’s not easy to sing out of tune on purpose, as French actress, Catherine Frot, attests of the beguiling Marguerite, the tale of a wannabe opera diva with a voice that will never match her ambition.

While Meryl Streep will hit screens later in the year as American soprano, Florence Foster Jenkins, in Stephen Frears’ anticipated eponymous biopic, acclaimed French director, Xavier Giannoli, teamed with actress, Catherine Frot, to tell the story first. “I’m very curious,” Frot says of the American version when FilmInk meets the warm and occasionally theatrical actress in Paris. “It won’t be the same story. It will be very difficult to draw a comparison between the two. The one common point is that they both sing out of tune! Meryl Streep is a great star, so I’ll run to see it as soon as it’s released.”

Audiences, meanwhile, should run to see Xavier Giannoli’s superb French version as soon as it’s released. Loosely inspired by Jenkins, our titular heroine is a shameless opera singer with a surplus of money, whose whole life is devoted to music and lavish public performances. The only problem is that she’s terribly out of tune, and no one in her hypocritical social circle dares to tell her. Pitch-perfect in every way except its leading lady’s musical abilities, Marguerite is a blackly funny, but also deeply humane story about a woman whose creative ambition so utterly exceeds her grasp. “She is a tragic heroine,” says Frot via a translator, occasionally slipping between English and French. “She can make you laugh and cry at the same time. You pity her – she’s tragic. She’s big and small in a way. There’s a beautiful sentence that the professor of singing says just before the final performance, that there’s a small line between genius and ridicule. It’s very close; there’s not much difference.”

In both funny and profound ways, Marguerite explores the subjectivity of art. “There is an important theme of beauty in the film – what is beauty in art? Who can judge that Picasso in the beginning of his career was not an artist at all? When the baroque music started to surface, people were covering their ears, as they did with free jazz. Who are we to judge what is beautiful and what’s ugly in art? Marguerite embodies art at its rawest form.”

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Throughout the film, one questions how much the beguiling Marguerite actually knows, and whether she is party to her own deception. “There is an ambiguity throughout the film,” Frot agrees. “Sometimes we have the impression that Marguerite is intelligent and knows it all, and there are times when she seems lost in her own world. When I saw the film, I didn’t recognise myself. This is the first time that’s happened. I was very surprised. The film is full of such ambiguity and paradox. We do not know what she wants or what she’s looking for. She’s such a mystery to all of us.”

In finding her way into this elusive, endearing character, Frot started with the music. “My work was mainly listening to Florence Foster Jenkins singing ‘Queen Of The Night’ by Mozart and Maria Callas singing ‘Casta Diva.’ I was able to feel good singing, and singing out of tune. Listening to those two different ways of singing fed me more than any other research.”

 

The actress soon realised that there was a particular art to singing badly. “The problem was that Marguerite sung in such a high pitch that I ended up breaking my own voice! So we had to find a stand-in who dubbed my lips, and there was this whole process during mixing. This thing of singing out of tune is not easy! It took a long time to cast someone for my voice because some of them were caricatures. They were too strong and sounded too fake. It was very important to find the real one…the good bad one! I really wanted there to be a poetic element to the singing.”

While Frot is a beloved, esteemed actress in her home country, she feels that Marguerite – her first film in three years – has elevated her career to another level. “It’s a rare role and opportunity,” she says. “It might make it difficult to accept other projects and future roles, but I’m sure that it will help me grow in my craft as happened in theatre. Since I played Winnie in Happy Days [the Samuel Beckett play Frot starred in before Marguerite], I’ve had a feeling that I heightened myself in a way. Marguerite is the type of role that will help me do the same in cinema.”

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While Marguerite unspools against the creative turbulence of the 1920s, Frot feels that the film and her character are just as relevant today. “Are we all Marguerite in a way?” the actress smiles. “We are full of enthusiasm for our profession and our craft, but maybe we don’t realise that we are totally out of tune.”

Marguerite is released in cinemas on April 21.

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