MARGUERITE’S THEORY (Cannes 2023) – Review by Nadine Whitney

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In Anna Novion’s Marguerite’s Theory (Le théorème de Marguerite, for brilliant student Marguerite Hoffman (Ella Rumpf) theoretical mathematics have been a way for her to “find order in infinity.” At the age of twenty-five she is ensconced in academia at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure and about to deliver a thesis she has been working on for three years with her taciturn supervisor Laurent Werner (Jean-Pierre Darroussin). Like most elite institutions it is intensely competitive at all levels and the world of theoretical mathematics is small and filled with rivalry and resentment. Marguerite has nothing in her life outside her work (she tells a journalist she likes playing Yahtzee with her mother and taking walks to think about equations). She is the epitome of single-mindedness.

When a new student Lucas (Julien Frison) who was headhunted by Werner from Oxford finds a flaw in Marguerite’s thesis presentation Marguerite breaks down and finds no support from Werner who has already decided to replace her with Lucas. Marguerite is, in Werner’s opinion, too emotional, and emotion does not belong in mathematics. The irony is that emotion is not something Marguerite has ever welcomed and her interest in mathematics stemmed from trying to block out how overwhelming the world is.

Marguerite makes the decision to quit the ENS despite having to pay her scholarship back and ends up in another part of Paris rooming with her “opposite” a dancer called Noa (Sonia Bonny) who embraces spontaneity and whose creative language is expressed in an external and universally recognised manner. At first for Marguerite, her new lifestyle away from mathematics allows her to start integrating into society on a level previously unknown to her, but it isn’t long until the siren’s call of numbers has her in its grasp again.

It is difficult to make the world of theoretical mathematics interesting, although it most certainly is for some people, and it doesn’t translate well cinematically so Novion uses visual cliches to signal what attracts Marguerite to the refined field (numbers layered over characters, scrawled pieces of paper, walls covered in symbols). If numbers themselves aren’t inherently interesting, then it is the character study of what drives Marguerite that has to take the place as the hook of the film. Unfortunately, despite Ella Rumpf’s best efforts, we get given a protagonist whose traits are pre-coded by the “truculent genius” trope. Marguerite does develop over the film to be more than the awkward (and possibly neurodivergent) and annoyed adherent to rules and logic. The route to the development, however, it through a romantic subplot which is as obvious as it is stale.

Marguerite is trying to find a method to approach and potentially solve Goldbach’s conjecture, a problem that has eluded scholars for centuries. To do so would be an immense triumph and would mean lasting fame for whoever manages it. Novion puts a kind of clock on the wall in that Marguerite is trying to present her solution before Werner, but the feeling of urgency is entirely in Marguerite’s head and doesn’t translate to something that induces cinematic tension.

Eventually what the audience is given is the puzzle that is Marguerite. Novion’s method to take her to a predictable end point with stops along the line that are already worn tropes sabotages any emotional resonance the film was trying to build. We know where the film is going as much as we understand 2 + 2 = 4 and the experience doesn’t add up to anything special. Marguerite’s Theory isn’t a complete miscalculation as it does address some of the pitfalls of living with a single immutable goal without reference to the wider world, but the lack of originality of the film renders it mostly inert.

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Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney is a seasoned film critic and scholar. Based in Melbourne, Australia, Nadine contributes regularly to FILMINK, The Curb, and Mr Movies Film Blog. She holds a degree in cinema theory and cultural studies. Her specialty is surrealism in cinema. She is as passionate about cats as she is about film. She is co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association and a member of FIPRESCI.