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Outsider music is the music of personality. It is not defined by musical characteristics, but rather the character itself. A musician does not sit down and state they will make a piece of Outsider music. It cannot be done, either a person is an outsider, or not.
The category is often defined as being passion above talent in the classic sense, or it can also be awe-inspiring song writing skills, hindered by unconventional, or subpar playing styles. Daniel Johnston cannot sing, nor can he play guitar, but he can compose, and he had devotion to his art. Because he is evidently gifted in one sense, audiences can overlook the areas of in which he is remiss.
This is what makes Florence Foster Jenkins an interesting subject matter for a film. Her operatic abilities were dire on an Ed Wood scale. Simply put, she could not sing to save her life, nor could she compose. However, this inability, on top of an intense commitment to music and a large heap of cash makes her one of the very first Outsider musicians. She is in essence, the Wing of the early 20th century. Her legacy is defined by sheer lack of talent, but an abundance of confidence. For that reason, she will live on eternally, when many gifted opera singers will vanish into obscurity, because, when they were overcome by shyness, she stood up and sang, even if she really ought not to have.
Her story provides the inspiration for Marguerite, the sixth feature-length film by director Xavier Giannoli and a crazed Dunning-Kruger tragicomedy, which looks at two different operatic singers on wildly different ends of the talent spectrum. On the one hand, there is Hazel, a profoundly gifted performer, shy, modest and at the beginning of her career. On the other hand is Marguerite, a woman who is set-up for viewers to have been born imbued with a God-given talent, whose house is decorated with photographs of her in many elaborate theatrical costumes, and whose private recitals have people holding their breath as she prepares to sing. She is a veteran of the art, yet, the moment a single note flies from her mouth, the realisation dawns that she is horrendous beyond belief.
Brilliantly captured are her frighteningly poor performances, to the extent that you will find it hard not to keel over with laughter. However, as Giannoli delves deeper into her life, we see an isolated woman, intensely devoted and in admiration of the opera. Of immense wealth, like Foster-Jenkins, she is starved of characters around her whom have the heart to shoot her down. She is an Outsider Musician in the purest sense, because while there is scarcely a shred of ability, there is a love prevalent, so powerful as to never be tarnished.
Accompanying her is a reluctant husband, who truly wishes she might stop, but who does not have the bravery to say it himself, and a kind hearted butler, whose commitment to protecting her means he will erase any bad reviews, while cruelly blackmailing teachers into accepting her as their student. On top of this and whom the viewer follows initially, are a pair of eccentric young men, one editor and one anarchic artist, who both fall deeply in love with her despite, or maybe because of, her ineptitude. Somewhat comparable to the murderous duo in Funny Games, they are simultaneously kind, and vile, though, unlike that pair, their characters evolve for the better. Publishing fawning reviews, built upon white lies and emphasis on her exhibition of emotions, they see in her potential, and hence, set up a recital, which turns out to be a Dadaist theatrical event. They know there is a world in which she can thrive. It just might not be the one that she longed for.
Growing in reputation, though each successive audience never realising that it is for the wrong reasons, she soon sees it fit to put on a major concert of her own. With nobody certain whether this might be the correct time to intervene, the stakes get higher, comically so, until, it becomes apparent, not only is her happiness at risk, but equally are the careers of those lovingly paying her more attention that she deserves.
A fantastic period drama, and a modern Veronica Voss, or Sunset Boulevard without the former glories to justify the present-day train wreck, Marguerite is a wonderful character study, trailing after a cast of oddballs, who share much in common with the figures in a Jodorowsky film, or the entourage of Count Olaf. Visually hyper-real, and surreal in places, this is an opera jutting between fantasy and the real world, which, despite the excessive running-time is worth seeking-out.
Marguerite is exclusively in the IFI from March 18th, Check out the trailer below.
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