It is a paradox worthy of Zeno himself that significant dumbing-down is necessary in order to make tales of extraordinary genius comprehensible to us lay audiences. But in her own attempt at grandly unifying these opposing poles, French director(“Grown Ups,” “Rendezvous in Kiruna”) splits the difference so often she delivers in “ ,” a movie riddled with cliché that plunges right past comprehensible into painfully, pedantically predictable — even to those of us who stumble when subtracting one two-digit number from another. Its heroine loves math because through it she can “put order on infinity,” but “Marguerite’s Theorem” is proof as incontrovertible as Andrew Wiles’ 1994 Fermat solution, that one can have too much order.
Marguerite Hoffman (, “Raw”) is a tacitly spectrum-coded PhD student at France’s École Normale Supérieure, which is legendary in science circles for churning out geniuses at a rate it might take one of its graduates to compute. As one of the very few women studying at this level, let alone one working with celebrated professor Werner (Jean-Pierre Darroussin, tweedy) on the famously unsolved Riemann Hypothesis, she is being interviewed by a student journalist. Mousy and monotone, Marguerite is not a great interview.
But she has made a breakthrough — a process signaled here by heavenly choirs trilling while disembodied equations float around her head like a cloud of gnats. However, when she goes to present her proof to a lecture hall of (male) peers, recent Oxford transfer Lucas (Julien Frison), a louche but brilliant trombonist, casually points out a flaw that undermines all her meticulous work. Suddenly, with Werner looming large in his disapproval and Lucas snaking his way to the pragmatic prof’s good graces, maladroit Marguerite is left as the square on the hypotenuse. She goes to pieces, quits school and swears off the sums.
Looking for a job and a place to live she meets Black Best Friend Archetype Noa (Sonia Bonny) a free-spirited dancer who happens to need a flatmate. Then the screenplay (co-written by Novion and three other screenwriters — insert “sum of its parts” joke here) delivers its one interesting side hustle, as Marguerite discovers her own side hustle: She can reliably fleece a neighborhood mahjong ring with her math superpowers. Money is no longer a problem, and through Noa, Marguerite starts to live a little, going to parties, hooking up.
But she cannot resist the lure of Riemann, and an even bigger white whale in the labyrinthine Goldbach Conjecture, and soon has a eureka moment (choirs! floating numbers!) that she needs help working through. She recruits an initially reluctant Lucas, and over Chinese food and walks in the park they fall in the kind of love where each is forever finishing the other’s equations. Soon all the surfaces in the apartment, including the hastily blackened walls, are covered in scribbled strings of algebra — seriously, the production design may well have been sponsored by Big Chalk.
Throughout it all, Jacques Girault’s photography is earnest and pleasant, and editor Anne Souriau cuts with enough pace to ensure that all the expected beats arrive with the punctuality of a German train schedule, and about as much excitement. Marguerite’s final rote triumph will even see crusty ol’ Werner proudly murmuring “That’s my student!” — a trope forever ruined/improved by the scene in “Zoolander” where Jon Voight’s brusque coalminer father finally acknowledges his supermodel son.
The performances are unobjectionable, but it’s a shame that Rumpf, so good in “Raw,” has to wrap her ferocity in fleece-sweatered drabness throughout. Indeed, it’s sad that the only cliché Novion denies herself is the ugly-duckling makeover — despite the frumpy styling, Rumpf clearly has the bone structure to carry it off. Miniseries phenom “The Queen’s Gambit,” which did for its sedentary sport what Novion wants to do for math, was not above lashing on the eye candy to distract us from all the actual chess.
Instead, “Marguerite’s Theorem” remains an indivisibly odd number, that feels like it’s being stolidly faithful to a true story when, like the much more fun “Queen’s Gambit,” or indeed “Good Will Hunting,” it is fiction. It has some doubtless well-researched basis in real mathematicians’ experiences, but is beholden to no one’s biography, a freedom of which it makes no good use. And its arguments about the underappreciation of women of genius are undercut by pivoting on Marguerite solving Goldbach – a feat actually achieved by precisely no one, whether young woman, old man or wombat. For all its flaws, “A Beautiful Mind” — the film this one most resembles, not least in the hammy writing-on-the-windows bits — at least has the stakes of being based on a real person. “Marguerite’s Theorem,” by contrast, has nothing to prove, and so proves nothing, least of all that there is, as dowdy, chalky misfit brainiacs keep insisting, some stirring arcane beauty in mathematics.