We first meet Frances Price (Michelle Pfeiffer) in her huge Upper East Side mansion. The brown wood and the enormous space she lives in indicates immediately how wealthy and insular she is. Her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) and his girlfriend (Imogen Poots) announce their engagement to each other but are afraid to tell Frances. Another indication that Frances might not be the easiest person to deal with. And when a few scenes later she calls her lawyer a pig in French to his face, making sure he knows it and she gets away with it, the characterization is complete.
The lawyer was telling Frances that her wealth is no more. She’s forced to accept a friend’s offer of a free apartment in Paris. Across the ocean she and Malcolm go, bringing along their cat Little Frank, named after her dead husband. She plans to live in Paris as long as her money lasts which by the way she spends won’t be that long. The filmmakers behind French Exit, screenwriter Patrick DeWitt adapting his novel and director Azazel Jacob, understand that these insular privileged characters would be odd. They would act idiosyncratically, they would be unknowingly rude, they would not have a concept for how much anything costs. They live in their own world. So when the cat starts talking – in the voice of Tracy Letts – you go with it. Looking at them with any real world framework or rule book is a futile task. You might as well turn off the movie.
But Azazel also understands how perilous Frances’ situation is. So while the tone of the film is arch allowing the audience to laugh and enjoy how rude and cruel Frances can be. He also knows that he needs an actress to bring out the loneliness of Frances and he hit the jackpot in casting Pfeiffer who follows the film’s tone to a point. As we go along she slowly starts peeling off the affect, to show us the melancholic undertones of Frances. That’s when the performance finds its apex.
In Paris Frances and Malcolm start collecting a few eccentric friends, building a sorta family. There’s a sad widow (Valerie Mahaffey) who’s very enamored with Frances. A fortune teller (Danielle MacDonald) who sleeps with Malcolm. A soft spoken private investigator (Isaach De Bankole) who’s tasked with finding Little Frank when he runs away. Each of these characters brings another offbeat comedic note that provides levity but doesn’t add much to this quirky world we are watching besides showing us how isolated Frances increasingly becomes. She can’t make real connections, they have to be strange like her or she has to buy their companionship.
Hedges plays Malcolm with limited expressions of exasperation and despondensy. You don’t understand why these two women would be attracted to him. We only get faint glimmers of the rich boy’s insouciance that could be what attracted them. But it doesn’t matter, the real showstopper here is Pfeiffer. She’s the reason to watch. She could have played this role like an imperious 1940s Bette Davis character; a Regina Giddens (The Little Foxes) or Fanny Skeffington (Mr. Skeffington). All haughty gestures and clipped tones. Perhaps that would have made it more memorable. It certainly would have made it more gif-able, more fun and catnip to awards bodies. But Pfeiffer is getting at something more interesting than paying homage to a proven screen persona. That would be expected, instead she’s interested in locating a center of sorrow and regret that drives this woman. She even recedes to the background in group scenes and lets Mahaffey steal their scenes together. She’s staying true to Frances’ nature, a rich woman used to having lots of space between her and others. A woman who can’t be bothered to react to people except with dismissal until she is forced to face reality. This is most evident in a heartbreaking scene where Frances acknowledges that her life is riddled by cliches.
French Exit is a film to savor and bask in. There are no immediate takeaways or blazing memorable scenes or even a loud performance to start a conversation. These are not characters you fall in love with or want to spend lots of time with. It’s not a film that elicits a definitive opinion right after it ends. However a few days later I keep thinking about it.
French Exit screened as the closing night selection of this year’s New York Film Festival will be released in February 2021.
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