Goldbach’s conjecture is one of the most famous unsolved problems in the world of mathematics. The numerical theory is a mind-melting feat and one that continues to puzzle humanity’s brightest minds. Marguerite’s Theorem (Le Théorème de Marguerite), French-Swedish writer-director Anna Novion’s third feature, takes the quandary and asks whether seeking out such improbable solutions is a worthy ambition or a tirelessly painful pursuit.
Raw break-out Ella Rumpf plays the eponymous Marguerite, a studious scholarship PhD student at the prestige École Normale Supérieure who wears her gifted and talented badge with quiet pride. Despite being one of the brightest in the room and a numerical genius, in the world of mathematics, Marguerite is an anomaly. In lecture theatres and seminar classes, she is the only woman. Though with her hair scraped back, rounded wire glasses, and head in a book, she manages to pass by undetected for the most part thanks to her quizzical education. Silently, however, she’s setting a precedent. She endeavors to solve one of the most perplexing conjectures and become not just great, but an exceptional young savant.
The hefty ambition is heavy on 25-year-old Marguerite’s shoulders as expectation battles self-belief. “Mathematics and emotions don’t mix,” the supervisor Werner (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) tells her at one point – it’s a sentiment that underscores the entirety of Marguerite’s Theorem. Before an audience of researchers, Marguerite exhales equations and inhales their impressed hums as she scribbles out her research on “arithmetic progressions in finite sets of integers.” It only takes a second, however, for her world to come crashing down. New student Lucas (Julien Frison), a rival in her eyes, manages to invalidate three years of PhD research with one question. In her worst nightmare, her emotions take over and her work becomes unusable. Distraught and infuriated, she flees and comes to resent the world that gave her such power.
She once professed she “couldn’t live without” maths, but now that her life is pointed in a new direction Marguerite is at a loss. Her genius came not from a place of intellect, but love. Love for the subject that empowered her to rise to the elite rank level and be considered seriously amongst revered peers. The severed relationship between her and maths then hits with the same devastation as a break-up. It’s an intriguing perspective from Novion, who served as a writer on the project alongside Agnès Feuvre and Marie-Stéphane Imbert. The script is sharpest in this rumination of a woman hellbent on success; there’s remarkable nuance demonstrated in the portrayal of Marguerite rebuilding herself from nothing.
In lieu of numerical problems solving, Marguerite throws herself into retail work to stay busy, earn money to pay back scholarship fees, and also pacify her worried mother (Clotilde Courau). However, she can’t seem to turn her analytical brain off. She gets thrown out after she questions the logic of a lipstick questionnaire, but here she meets the effervescent Noa (Sonia Bonny). Noa is like her guardian angel; she has a room for rent and exudes optimism that warms even Marguerite’s chilly bluntness. Rumpe transports the savagery of her previous roles into a determined and honed focus as Marguerite asserts a new version of herself onto the world. She gets to explore her sexuality for the first time and experience the chaotic mid-20s nights. With this new side to Marguerite, Rumpe’s carefully sculpted performance brings warm humanity to the previously cold, quantitative objectivity.
It is in this new chapter of Marguerite’s life that cinematographer Jacques Girault opens up the shots, allowing more light to enter the fame as the melancholy blue hues are flooded with a newfound brightness. The visual variation continues when Marguerite stumbles upon a new obsession: Mahjong. The tile-based game takes Marguerite underground, where she’s surrounded by low lights and neon streaks. It’s a new, illicit universe that engulfs Marguerite. Novion implements Marguerite’s focused mind here; when a problem has a multitude of solutions, new methods must be created originating from new perspectives. With her new Mahjong fixation, Marguerite’s solution is a new outlet for her arithmetic-loving brain. Slowly, her love for the subject creeps back into her periphery.
She has erased her career and squandered her passion, but that doesn’t mean her love for maths has deteriorated. Falling asleep with a pen in her hand and papers streaming with equations littering her desk, Marguerite proves herself a woman of insatiable determination. While the white chalk crumbles under her fingertips, she stays composed. It’s a credit to Rumpf that such transformation plays out believably without a sense of contrived allegory – she delivers “eureka” moments with powerfully restrained grandeur that only heightens the emotional sincerity of this young woman conquering genius in a world of men.
Marguerite’s Theorem renders itself an almost-romance. Though unexpected infatuation lurches away from scholarly pursuits, there’s the pertinent understanding that Marguerite is not choosing between love and work. It’s in this refined narrative that the scholarly-focused film loosens up and shakes off much of its predictability. So many portraits of gifted subjects that have come before are centered on the decision of choosing between life and work, but Novion rejects such reductive narratives and finds more intrigue in the act of personal reassembly. Marguerite’s Theorem is a worthy contemplation of a gifted student venturing into the “real world” that showcases maths and emotions can in fact mix.
Marguerite’s Theorem played as a Special Screening at the Cannes Official Selection. A release date is yet to be announced.