‘FRENCH EXIT’ #NYFF58 review: Michelle Pfeiffer stars as depressed rich white lady – and it should be better

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

FRENCH EXIT

Rated R, 110 minutes

Directed by: Azazel Jacobs

Starring: Michelle PfeifferLucas HedgesValerie Mahaffey, Danielle Macdonald, Susan Coyne, Imogen Poots, Isaach De Bankolé

FRENCH EXIT is one of those films that forces the audience to ask where it’s going and why we should care twenty minutes into the story. The trouble is that it flails in satisfactorily delivering those answers during the rest of its run time. Considering there’s a subplot involving a talking cat and a lonely widow who keeps a dildo in her freezer, well, that’s saying a lot. Part wannabe Whit Stillman, part wannabe Woody Allen, part wannabe Hal Ashby, director Azazel Jacobs’ quirky dramedy adapted from Patrick DeWitt’s novel centers on an aging, depressed socialite who’s suffered one too many indignities and decides to skip town with her son in tow to close out her life in Paris. Its erratic tonal qualities and a protagonist who’s far more deliciously wicked as a caustic, ice-cold woman rather than the redeemed person she predictably becomes make this a hollow bore.

The film’s cheeky title is derived from the vaguely ethnophobic term, meaning to leave a gathering without saying farewell (similar to an “Irish Goodbye”). Manhattan socialite Frances Price (Michelle Pfeiffer) intends to do literally that after learning her dead husband’s money is about to run out. Her financial advisor has been warning her for a decade she’d face insolvency and, as morose and glib as her reaction is, she’s planned to kill herself before that day. It just hadn’t occurred to her it would have to happen this soon. As a way to deter any gossip-mongering, and keep everyone in the dark as to her impending scheme, Frances privately sells the family’s art, fine jewelry and home and takes up her sole friend Joan’s (Susan Coyne) offer to use her apartment in Paris.

Meanwhile, Frances’ suit-sporting son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) has been making plans of his own. He’s proposed to Susan (Imogen Poots), yet has been too afraid – more so reluctant – to announce their engagement to his egotistical mother, fearing her disdain.

Through Susan’s expository dialogue, we learn more about Malcolm and Frances’ tenuous, dysfunctional mother-son dynamic, specifically that his blind devotion to a mother who’s never shown him much affection acts as a wedge in their relationship. They split and shortly thereafter, Malcolm, his mom and their black cat whose believed to house the spirit of her dead husband, Small Frank (voiced by Tracey Letts), set sail on a cruise liner headed for France.

Lucas Hedges and Danielle Macdonald in FRENCH EXIT. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Characters aren’t so much developed as they are discussed by others in expository speech dumps to deliver their backstories. We’re told by Susan that Frances is selfish. However, we see her engage kindly and thoughtfully with two homeless men. Perhaps the filmmakers’ ambiguous point is that it’s futile to think we can change others’ impressions of us, as wrong as they may be. We’ll never know. At a dinner held by distant acquaintance Mme. Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey), an eccentric lonely fellow ex-pat widow with the aforementioned sex toy in her freezer, she spews a long-winded anecdote about the fearless, ferocious woman Frances was. This has no tangible impact, except to remind the audience that’s the movie we’d rather be seeing. At a séance held after Small Frank runs away, Malcolm, who’s barely one-dimensional, unloads to his uncaring father’s disembodied voice about their strained relationship. Plus, the convergence of a myriad of tertiary players – like the clairvoyant Madeline (Danielle Macdonald), private investigator (Isaach De Bankolé), and Susan’s latest ex-fiancé Tom (Daniel di Tomasso) – in Joan’s Parisian pied-à-terre fails to add up to anything exciting except quirky shenanigans for quirky shenanigans’ sake.

Frances is a fascinating study in Pfeiffer’s hands. The actresses’ innate warmth clashes against the character’s chilly, haughty contempt. She’s richly layered and with each day that passes, and each pile of cash that dissipates, those layers thaw, revealing a woman who’s strong-willed and capable of compassion. Her best scene is when she provokes a rude French waiter by spritzing a table bouquet of flowers with perfume and then lighting it on fire, never breaking eye contact with the help. This sequence acts as a subtle metaphor reflecting the character’s defiant yearning to self-immolate, but also where editor Hilda Rasula’s work shines in concert with Pfeiffer’s darkly comedic timing.

Still, the threads tying the character together become easily tangled in knots, through no fault of Pfeiffer’s compelling work. The material gives her an uninteresting journey, which sounds like a crazy thing to say given she’s playing a woman who believes her dead husband’s soul resides in her pet. Her arc is thoroughly anticipated and the underbelly of it all mourns that she can’t behave like her typical cruel, regular self to people she’d ordinarily mock (like the two marginalized men and Mme. Reynard). Maybe that’s just us wishing for her to stay unapologetic and unlikeable, if only to hear more cutting barbs tumble from her poisonous pursed lips.

Grade: 2 out of 5

FRENCH EXIT played the New York Film Festival on October 10. Sony Pictures Classics will open the film February 12, 2021.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.