Baroness Marguerite Dumont, the heroine of French writer-director Xavier Giannoli's wonderfully loopy satire Marguerite, is quite literally mad for opera.
Portrayed with remarkable charm and finesse by Catherine Frot (Haute Cuisine), the baroness is a wealthy amateur soprano who reckons she has what it takes to be a grand diva. In reality, the delusional dame sings like a cat in heat.
The comparison is apt: When she practices at home, Marguerite's screeching is answered by the half a dozen cats she keeps in the house, not to mention the peacock and ostrich that patrol the garden.
Giannoli's riotously funny and heartbreaking film follows Marguerite's attempt to stage a solo recital in a grand theater in Paris. Her antics incite panic in her husband, Georges (André Marcon), an emotionally distant industrialist terrified of the scandal the show will unleash. He's too myopic to see that his wife's obsession with opera is an expression of her unrequited love for him.
Filmed with a visual style so textured you can almost feel it, Marguerite is based loosely on the life of Wilkes-Barre-born socialite Florence Foster Jenkins, whose lack of talent as a singer didn't deter her from releasing several records or giving concerts in the early decades of the 20th century.
But this isn't exactly a biopic. For that, you should wait for Stephen Frears' Florence Foster Jenkins, which is due to open Aug. 31.
Instead, Giannoli uses Jenkins' story as a jumping-off point to weave a complex, multilayered story of France - its self-image, its social structure, and its artistic heritage - in the wake of World War I.
There's a lacerating critique of Georges' social circle, the men and women in charge of the postwar reconstruction. As long as they need her financial support, they feed Marguerite's delusion by inviting her to perform at private recitals.
Giannoli's sprawling canvas also touches on Paris' bohemian cafe culture. A patron of the arts who will help anyone in need, Marguerite is manipulated into performing as part of a savage dadaist cabaret that's raided by the police.
Marguerite is a powerful film. It invites us to laugh at its heroine for her foolishness, her insanity, her stupidity. Yet we end up feeling ashamed of our callousness.
She may be crazy, but Marguerite is gentle, generous, and loving. She has the purity of heart lacking in people who are sane enough to manipulate, cheat, and lie.