An Age of Extremes

Marguerite, Written and Directed by Xavier Giannoli, Duke of York's Picturehouse, Brighton, 20 March

Recently, in a second hand bookshop, I was admiring a collected works, in English, of Balzac. The bookseller remarked that no one, meaning no one in England, reads Balzac anymore. It's true, there aren't any English adaptations of his work, on stage or film, that I've seen or even been aware of, unlike the procession of Austens, Brontes and Dickens costume extravaganzas.

It's time to re-discover him. Marguerite, though not based on Balzac and set a hundred years or so after his time, is a homage to some of his obsessions. And these obsessions, themes, subjects are now ours: extreme inequality, the deformity that this situation can create in society and in individuals, the lengths those fighting to rise, or even to survive, will employ, the attraction that the demimonde holds for those with wealth, the confusion in and between art, patronage and philanthropy.

Balzac was all about the extremes. Austen, Bronte and Dickens et al, tended to create a comfortable picture of England as essentially a middle class country. This is evidenced even today in a production such as the recent BBC adaptation of War and Peace, which transforms some truly vile Russian aristocrats into nice, bourgeois families we can all empathise with.
So too is Marguerite all about extremes. Marguerite Dumont is an extremely wealthy woman; and an extremely bad singer. She is a bad singer in a way that attracts the attention of a journalist and his friend, an artist in the Dadaist style, who sees her as someone to be mocked and exploited, presented as a cypher for all that is decadent about art and society.

We first meet Marguerite in her home, hosting a society event, a recital, in aid of a charity for orphans. After the professional singers have performed, the star turn is Marguerite herself and her performance is truly shocking. And very funny. No-one present can believe their ears.

Marguerite's home, her retinue of servants, her butler, the gardens with peacocks, one of which provides a feather for her costume, none of it would have been out of place in Balzac's time. Only her husband's car, which he pretends has broken down so he can miss the performance, is anachronistic. Everything is lushly filmed, beautifully dressed, the singing of the other performers perfection, the buildup to Marguerit's entrance expertly managed.
Her bad singing, when it finally arrives, seems freakish, absurd, utterly out of place. Can no-one hear it? Can she not hear it? Apparently some can. The journalist stumbling into the billiard room, is told to shut the door, to shut out the dreadful sound. When the performance ends we see the men hurrying out to join the applause. Marguerite is a very generous benefactor to the cause, to art and to charity.

The journalist, Lucien (whose name and profession must refer to Balzac's Lucien Chardon) writes a generous, if gently mocking, report in the paper the next day. Marguerite goes to meet him at his office. The journalist and his friend, the Dadaist, prevail on her to perform at an event they are holding at a jazz bar in Paris. Marguerite sings The Marseilles, with shocking images from the Great War projected onto her costume. The performance, seeming mocking the national anthem, causes a riot. Marguerite is expelled from the charitable society at which she has been used to perform, but far from being discouraged, the experience of singing in front of a real audience has inspired her.

Now she is determined to sing in public again.

Her husband is horrified. But it is Marguerite's money. What can he do but complain to his mistress?

The outside world, with it's ugliness and compromise, with its freaks and has-beens, its desperation, begins to invade Marguerite's carefully controlled life.

But Marguerite isn't simply a cipher. Everyone who comes in contact with her is touched by her.

Her money has deformed the love that she feels for her husband, and he for her, but she herself seems untouched. Her generosity is genuine.

Metaphor, analogy, allegory, these are techniques which in the age of comic book films, horror films, naturalism, docu-drama, seem very old fashioned and out of place.

In the same way that extremes of wealth and poverty, of people sleeping in the streets, of the rise of xenophobia, of right wing apologists, all seem very old fashioned and out of date.

We have the internet don't we, this is the Twenty-first Century? The extremes of Balzac's time, of the Great War, they can't come back, surely?

Different times need a different language. Marguerite is an intimation of the kind of film that may be needed in our own time.

Paul Corcoran