"We all need a bit of illusion in our lives"
by Fabien Lemercier
- VENICE 2015: The French filmmaker Xavier Giannoli deciphers Marguerite, unveiled in competition at the 72nd Venice Film Festival
A regular at the big film festivals, Xavier Giannoli unveiled his 6th feature film at the 72nd Venice Film Festival. Marguerite [+see also:
interview: Xavier Giannoli
film profile] takes us back to the 1920s to follow an astonishing singer with a dissonant voice, played by the sensational Catherine Frot. We met with the filmmaker just a few days before he set off for the Venetian Lido.
Cineuropa: How did you come across Florence Foster Jenkins, the inspiration for Marguerite?
Xavier Giannoli: Over ten years ago now, I was listening to the radio and heard the hilarious and tragic voice of this singer who sang completely out of tune. I found out that she was American and had lived in the first half of the twentieth century. Her sole album features a picture of her with wings on her back and the confident smile of a woman who clearly seemed totally unaware of the comical falseness of her voice. That moved me and I embarked on a ‘journalistic’ quest to learn as much about her as possible. I didn’t want to make a biopic as I prefer my films to offer a personal point of view. I kept a lot of the elements regarding her relationship with music, her social background, and her musical circle, but I stepped back from the true story. It’s a way of making room for storytelling and fiction. Then, I decided to transpose the history of the 1940s to the 1920s, and that of the United States to France.
The themes of truth and lies are at the heart of Marguerite
We all need a bit of illusion in our lives. And today’s world is echoed in the story of Marguerite with the lies, hypocrisy and illusions we fabricate and fall victim to because they reassure us. The character has a humanity about her that speaks to us and her story is not tied to any one era or social background, but is a universal concern of life: the strength we need to accept who we are and what we’ve done.
How did you play with the fine line between the dramatic and almost comical aspects of the character?
It’s a cliché, but life can be comical, ludicrous and ridiculous, yet tragic, deeply moving and sometimes painful at the same time. Marguerite is an innocent and completely eccentric woman whose comic quality is an expression of freedom, of rebellion. She can do anything: she rebels against her social environment, breaks with all its codes, and meets with artists and people who make her want to and need to break free, to take control of her life. And this gets her into some very funny situations. But she’s also a character who learns lies, a bit like a child walking on ice. The ice could crack and open up under her feet at any time, risking exposing the truth, that everyone has always lied to her, that no one has ever dared to tell her than she sings completely out of tune. There’s a lot of dramatic tension, keeping us in suspense, afraid that she could learn this truth.
How did you approach your first period film, an often costly affair?
The film is not a big-budget film by a long stretch. I prepared for it for over two years by doing a lot of location scouting and finding cheaper solutions to things that could have been very costly. The actors and production team also put a lot of work in. But we needed something that was visually very captivating, as that’s also a big part of the film: when we talk about lies, the power of imagery is very important. I wanted something elegant. I think that the best costume dramas are also the most minimalistic, so I didn’t want to fetichize anything, but portray the transformation of an ancient world into a new one instead, and that’s why I was so drawn to the 1920s. Marguerite is rich and lives in a very French château, but it’s adventure, the encounters she has and her desire to break free that lead her to discover other visual worlds: cabarets, offices… I also aimed for elegance and restraint with the costumes. I wanted the colours to be controlled, to play round with very few tones. I worked with the great cinematographer Glynn Speeckaert, and we shot the film using anamorphic lenses from the 1960s, which give a very unique and beautiful impression of space. Finally, we spent a lot of time working on the sound: from didgeridoo, jazz and opera to experimental music from the era… and Marguerite finds herself in the middle of the Dadaist movement, the big artistic revolution of the early twentieth century. As the character is on an adventure of freedom, I liked the idea of setting the film in the 1920s, of her hearing original sounds, seeing images she’d never seen, finding herself mixing with artists who show her new ways of expressing herself.
(Translated from French)