Playing a 65-year-old New York high-society widow who burns through her savings and moves to Paris with her son in Azazel Jacobs’ French Exit, Michelle Pfeiffer sucks the juice from each line like a Louisianan devouring a crawfish. It’s a full-on diva turn — a smorgasbord of side-eye and shade, of lacerating one-liners dispatched between drags on cigarettes and slurps of martinis. Fans of French cinema may feel they’re beholding an American grand dame worthy of comparisons to Isabelle Huppert or Nathalie Baye, while Sex and the City buffs will detect a bit of Kim Cattrall’s indelible vamp Samantha Jones in Pfeiffer’s patrician purr.
But the sense of tremulous vulnerability beneath the campy hauteur — the mix of warmth and cold, softness and steel — is very much the actress’ own. Pfeiffer’s performance in this uneven but charming adaptation of Patrick deWitt’s 2018 novel certainly isn’t her subtlest, but it ranks among her most captivatingly Pfeiffer-ian.
The movie takes a while to catch up to her. It has a lurching first act full of self-conscious archness and stylized deadpan dialogue that play as derivative of better work by Wes Anderson, Whit Stillman or Noah Baumbach. DeWitt — whose novel The Sisters Brothers was brought to the screen by Jacques Audiard in 2018 — is not as sharp a satirist as Stillman or Baumbach, and Jacobs (2019’s The Lovers) lacks Anderson’s formalist flair. Moreover, the film feels like it’s missing some crucial connective tissue; the central relationship between Pfeiffer’s infamous socialite Frances Price and her placidly adoring son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) is never persuasively fleshed out. One wonders if useful chunks of the screenplay (by deWitt himself) ended up on the cutting-room floor.
But once it reaches Paris, French Exit settles into a pleasurable absurdist groove, its quaint, hermetic fantasy world — not a cell phone or computer in sight, and characters travel to Europe by cruise liner — populated by secondary figures who push and pull Frances and Malcolm in amusing, sometimes surprising ways.
As he proved in two other sensitive studies of oddballs (his best film, Momma’s Man, and deWitt-scripted follow-up Terri), Jacobs is a deft commingler of tones and registers; he makes space for both grotesquerie and pathos, and knows how to locate the latter in the former. Here, the director and cast build a mood of disarming madcap silliness, then pierce it with moments of melancholy that temper the quirkitude. It’s a balancing act that French Exit, after wobbling for a while, mostly pulls off.
The movie opens with a flashback of Frances breaking a preteen Malcolm out of boarding school. Cut to 12 years later, when the two are living together in a sprawling Manhattan brownstone. With her impeccable diction and imperious gaze, her sleekly coiffed head of red hair and fur-lined trench coat, Frances is faded uptown glamour personified. She’s still a force of nature, though, and everyone — particularly stoic, stunted prepster Malcolm — bends to her will.
But Frances’ life of cloistered privilege is soon disrupted by an inconvenient reality: She’s broke, having spent almost the entire inheritance left by her late husband (whose body, we learn, Frances found and then abandoned for several days while on a weekend jaunt). As she tells her financial advisor: “My plan was to die before the money ran out, but I kept, and keep, not dying.” Frances decides to sell her remaining assets and flee to Paris, where her best friend Joan (Susan Coyne) has an empty apartment. She brings along the family cat, Small Frank, who hosts the spirit of Frances’ dead spouse (no big deal in the casually surrealist universe of French Exit), Malcolm and some stacks of cash.
Malcolm leaves behind frustrated fiancée Susan (Imogen Poots), who asks him why he’s so blindly devoted to a woman who never made time for him until she was his sole guardian. It’s a fair question. While this introductory chapter of French Exit belabors Frances’ dire financial circumstances, it doesn’t satisfyingly tease out the mother-son dynamic — the closeness and codependency that, ostensibly, are this story’s dysfunctional heart. Is Malcolm’s filial steadfastness rooted in genuine love, or is it a form of Stockholm syndrome? From the start, French Exit — much like a Wes Anderson movie — relies on the viewer accepting the internal logic of the bizarro bubble-world it depicts. But Jacobs and deWitt, at least in the early scenes, don’t make it easy.
On the cruise to Paris, Frances and Malcolm become entangled — in Malcolm’s case, literally — with a medium named Madeleine (Danielle Macdonald, flaunting comic chops after her devastating turn in Netflix’s Unbelievable). Once they settle in the City of Light, their circle expands to include other assorted eccentrics, like lonely, widowed American expat Madame Reynaud (a wonderful Valerie Mahaffey) and soft-spoken detective Julius (Jim Jarmusch regular Isaach De Bankolé).
The scene in which Madame Reynaud hosts Frances and Malcolm for dinner, winning them over (or wearing them down) with her tipsy candor and eagerness to please, is where French Exit begins to hit its stride. Mahaffey spins her character’s hunger for connection into comedy gold, and Frances’ initially grudging, increasingly sincere sympathy for this daffy fellow outsider — alcohol, a common dislike of lamb and a frozen phallus (don’t ask) are involved — is one of the film’s unexpected delights.
From there, French Exit takes a turn toward the more flamboyantly farcical. Small Frank goes missing, Susan shows up with a new beau (Daniel di Tomasso) and a worried Joan arrives to check in on Frances only to find that her apartment has become an epicenter of chaos. Meanwhile, Madeleine returns to lead seances communicating with the escaped Small Frank, who, it turns out (as voiced by Tracy Letts), is pretty nasty — more Behemoth from Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita than Paw-Paw from Miranda July’s The Future, as talking felines go.
The comings and goings, mishaps and misunderstandings, and spurts of slapstick (a bumped head, a punched nose) have a screwball zaniness reminiscent of the bravura Connecticut house sequence in Baumbach’s Mistress America. Jacobs stages it with energy and elegance, his DP Tobias Datum using the wide frame to take in the zigging and zagging and shifting geometry of this makeshift family, then, in quieter moments, pulling us closer to the ever-mesmerizing planes and angles of Pfeiffer’s face.
That face — by turns amused, annoyed, wistful and haunted — is French Exit‘s not-so-secret weapon, and it’s a particular pleasure to watch Pfeiffer play off the terrific Coyne as Frances’ oldest, most trusted confidante. Frances may treat herself like the doomed heroine of a tragicomic fiction — she doesn’t speak so much as proclaim, each grandiloquent utterance swollen with suggestion — but Joan is the one person in the story who doesn’t mythologize her; she calls Frances on her bullshit. Their scenes together hum with affectionate combativeness and a relaxed, rueful intimacy.
Pfeiffer and Hedges also make an appealing pair — and the actor’s line readings are typically smart — but Malcolm is an underwritten character, his motivations hazy and his passivity not especially interesting. A climactic mother-son heart-to-heart seems to be grasping for a gravitas that the film never offers enough context or substance to earn.
And why even reach when the grey-skied, gloomily beautiful backdrop of Paris evokes and expresses the narrative’s underlying sorrow — its preoccupation with death and loss — so eloquently? The capital captured here isn’t the chirpy cartoon of incorrigible French-ness and endless romance posited by Netflix’s current hate-watch sensation Emily in Paris; it’s hushed and mournful, a city of ruminative late nights and bleary-eyed morning-afters.
This is certainly the biggest canvas Jacobs has worked on yet, and, despite the movie’s occasionally grating artificiality, the director succeeds in filling it with his trademark brushstrokes of authentic sweetness and generosity. Frances is larger-than-life, but it’s her all-too-human foibles and idiosyncrasies that make the filmmaker, and us, love her.
Venue: New York Film Festival (Main Slate: Closing Night)
Production companies: Screen Siren Pictures, Elevation Pictures, Blinder Films
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Azazel Jacobs
Cast: Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges, Valerie Mahaffey, Susan Coyne, Danielle Macdonald, Isaach de Bankolé, Daniel di Tomasso, Tracy Letts
Writer: Patrick deWitt, based on his novel
Producers: Christine Haebler, Christine Piovesan, Noah Segal, Trish Dolman, Katie Holly, Olivier Glaas
Executive producers: Thorsten Schumacher, Lars Sylvest, Vincent Maraval, Ian Cooper, Laurie May, Adrian Love, Mal Ward, Marc Marrie, Matt Aselton, Azazel Jacobs, Patrick deWitt, Stuart Manashil, Darrin Navarro
Director of photography: Tobias Datum
Production designer: Jean-Andre Carriere
Costume designer: Jane Petrie
Music: Nick deWitt
Editor: Hilda Rasula
Casting: Nicole Arbusto