Cannes 2023 Review: “Marguerite’s Theorem” Shows How Character Counts

The biggest compliment that one could probably pay the filmmakers behind “Marguerite’s Theorem” is that like its titular hero (Ella Rumpf), it takes a certain accepted narrative logic as the mathematician must in working out time-old equations as the foundation to see things from a new perspective. If you guess the ending of Anna Novion’s third feature only minutes in, laying eyes on the introverted and fiercely determined Ph.D student who makes it her goal to solve a particularly frustrating theorem that has stumped generations of far more experienced mathematicians than herself, you likely won’t be too far off, though getting there is the exciting part when it involves an entirely different way of thinking.

It is at once an obvious bit of exposition and less apparent start of a fresh approach when Marguerite can be seen at first sitting for an interview for a magazine profile, set up by her professor Laurent Werner (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and ENS, the university where she is a post-grad student, to tout her rare gifts for math as she pursues a potentially groundbreaking thesis on prime numbers. The journalist looking for personal details to enliven the piece is unlikely to find any as Marguerite lists walking and playing Yahtzee occasionally with her mom as the only things she likes to do away from her studies, but at 25 and a rare woman in the field, she is still a story and one that will inevitably provide her professor with greater glory if she’s part of the team he leads that looks to solve the notoriously complex Goldbach Conjecture.

Marguerite is clearly devoted to Laurent, but there are signs that his faith in her is wavering, first bringing in another post-grad student Lucas (Julien Frison) to join the team and eventually relieving himself of serving as her advisor after a mistake is noted in her thesis presentation that unravels three years’ worth of work and any shed of her confidence in herself. The script from Novion, Agnes Feuvre and Marie-Stephane Imbert is savvy to note how Werner frames his disappointment, presenting it as an opportunity for Marguerite to spread her wings while wanting to shuttle her off on another professor so she can continue at the university and contribute to the project without the benefit of either learning from him or being acknowledged for her work, and immediately seeing through the raw deal, she leaves campus and pursues work that won’t involve a college diploma of any kind.

“Marguerite’s Theorem” recognizes this self-regard as Marguerite’s best and worst quality, having the gumption to walk away, but also making it less likely for her to ever want to engage with anyone else let alone trust them. However, when others have taken the same tact narratively, that’s admirably only part of the film’s equation as Laurent attempts to apply various forms of pressure to get her to sign off on getting his report published in academic journals when it’s derived from her work and her resolve is only strengthened by being exposed to a world outside of academia by her new roommate Noa (Sonia Bonny), a dancer who starts taking her to nightclubs.

The disillusionment that Marguerite experiences may be as old as time, but seems to be exposed in a particularly millennial fashion when Laurent may not be made out to be some mathematical giant, but that drives home the point further about how many promising talents have been discouraged by realizing they’re propping up the mediocre who come from privilege and as much as Marguerite sees herself in a new light, the political calculations become as important as making the numbers add up. This isn’t only well-realized in the script, but often in the film’s visuals where the utter devastation that Marguerite feels during her miserable presentation in a room full of men involves a camera move that accounts for the entire weight of what she’s up against and later thoughts racing around in her head as she’s beckoned back to her studies by Laurent has the clever backdrop of a moving train. In lesser hands, all this might become overwrought, but Novion is careful with the details, deserving all the credit in the world for a winning drama.

“Marguerite’s Theorem” will screen at the Cannes Film Festival at 4:30 pm at Cineum Aurore.

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