Michelle Pfeiffer in French Exit

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 much. 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 within 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 and 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 them. 

Hedges plays Malcolm as a sad boi from the beginning. You don’t understand why 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 scenes when many characters appear 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’sNew York Film Festival will be released in February 2021.

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Blue Jasmine: 3 Podcasts 1 Amazing Performance

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Have you listened yet to the three part miniseries about Cate Balnchett’s Oscar winning performance in Blue Jasmine? You can listen right here!

Follow along, the film is streaming at Amazon.

#1 Actor as Auteur with Matthew Eng

In part one we discuss Cate Blanchett as the real auteur of Blue Jasmine, and the many ways her performance makes her the author of the film.

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#2 The “Streetcar” Allusions with Candice Fredrick

In part two, we talk about the similarities to Tenesse Williams’ A Streetcar named Desire, the character of Blanche Dubois clearly is the blueprint for Jasmine… the many actresses who played Blanche or were inspired by her from the women in Pedro Almodovar’s movies to Gena Rowlands in Woman under the influence to most recently Carey Mulligan in Wildlife.

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# 3 Jasmine and Her Sisters with Jose Solis

And in the final part we discuss Jasmine and her sisters within the Woody Allen Oeuvre. Annie Hall, Helen St Clair in Bullets Over Broadway, Maria Elena in Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Cecilia in The Purple Rose of Cairo, among others.

If you are enjoying the podcast buy Murtada a cup of coffee, or rate and review the show.

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‘Blue Jasmine’ Part 3 – Jasmine and Her Sisters

In the 3rd and final part of the Blue Jasmine miniseries, we discuss Jasmine and her sisters. Annie Hall, Helen St Clair in Bullets Over Broadway, Maria Elena in Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Cecilia in The Purple Rose of Cairo, among others. Hosted by Murtada Elfadl with returning guest journalist and theater critic Jose Solís, host of Token Theater Friends podcast.

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Follow along, the film is streaming at Amazon.

What is the film about?

From IMDB: A New York socialite, deeply troubled and in denial, arrives in San Francisco to impose upon her sister. She looks a million, but isn’t bringing money, peace, or love…

What year did it come out?

July 2013

Who does Cate play?

Jasmine of course. One of her many titular characters.

How is Cate introduced?

Immediately and memorably. Jabbering away about her life and marriage to a stranger on a plane, sets the tone for how unstable the character is. 

Box Office:        Domestic = $33MM                Int’l = $66MM

Metacritic : 78          RT: 91

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How often do you quote Blue Jasmine IRL?

Topics discussed:

  • Woody Allen is a well known terrible person. Though the films are great and influential. Art vs. Artist. How do you reconcile your feelings about him and his art that we have loved for many years?
  • Blue Jasmine is a performance driven film. Blanchett just holds the screen. What other examples of this are in Allen’s canon?
  • Annie Hall (1977) – unique character inspired by the actress playing her, Diane Keaton.
  • Bullets Over Broadway (1994)- comedy genius performance from Dianne Weist.
  • Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) – another comic “genius” in Penelope Cruz.
  • Interiors (1978) – is it the closest to Jasmine of Woody’s women? Certainly the tragic ends of both Eve and Jasmine are similar. 
  • Or is it Judy Davis in Husbands and Wives (1992), an actress who’s closest in temperament to Blanchett?
  • Mia Farrow’s sublime performance in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985).
  • Emma Stone as the Woody stand-in Irrational Man (2015).
  • Allen’s reputation for many years as “women’s writer director” can’t be denied despite some misogynistic roles e.g Hemingway in Manhattan
  • The work of the costume designer and the makeup artist in helping Cate craft this performance
  • Charting the effects of the economic crisis on one person.
  • This is a lauded performance with critics, awards bodies and audiences – where does this stand among the best performances of the 2010s?

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Peter Sarsgaard, Blanchett, Michael Stuhlbarg and Alec Baldwin at the New York premiere July 2013

References:

“I think Woody Allen is a criminal, but I still think about (& might watch) his old films. I think The Cosby Show should still be aired.” Emily Nussbaum to Terry Gross on NPR.

Promotional Work:

More on Blue Jasmine:

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‘Blue Jasmine’ Part 2 – The Streetcar Allusions

In part 2 of the Blue Jasmine miniseries, we discuss the similarities with Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, the character of Blanche Dubois, clearly is the blueprint for Jasmine. The many actresses who played Blanche or were inspired by her from the women in Pedro Almodovar’s movies to Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence to most recently Carey Mulligan in Wildlife.  Hosted by Murtada Elfadl with guest TV and Film Journalist Candice Frederick.

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Subscribe:  Apple Podcasts   /   Stitcher   /  Spotify  /  Google

Follow along, the film is streaming at Amazon.

What is the film about?

From IMDB: A New York socialite, deeply troubled and in denial, arrives in San Francisco to impose upon her sister. She looks a million, but isn’t bringing money, peace, or love…

What year did it come out?

July 2013

Who does Cate play?

Jasmine of course. One of her many titular characters.

How is Cate introduced?

Immediately and memorably. Jabbering away about her life and marriage to a stranger on a plane, sets the tone for how unstable the character is. 

Box Office: Domestic = $33MM         Int’l = $66MM

Metacritic : 78         RT: 91 

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We explore the relationship between the sisters in this episode

Topics discussed:

  • Blue Jasmine as a riff on Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Woody Allen denied the connection, though it’s obvious to anyone who knows the play.
  • The differences between Streetcar and Jasmine:

– No sexual tension between Jasmine / Chilli as there was btw Blanche / Stanley.

– It’s Jasmine’s story, diminished roles for other characters.      

– Modernized Streetcar though themes of class disparity are consistent.

  • Blanche is written and played more vulnerable than Jasmine, though they are both architects of their own destruction.
  •  Cate has played Blanche DuBois in a production directed by Liv Ullman that came to BAM in 2009. 
  • Other actresses who played Blanche (it’s a right of passage) include: Vivien Leigh, Jessica Lange, Rachel Weisz, Gillian Anderson, Nicole Ari Parker.
  • Other performances in the vein of “women unravelling” so many examples from Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence to Carey Mulligan in Wildlife to a whole array of Pedro Almodovar leading ladies particulary in All About My Mother.
  • Blanchett’s performance in relation to the other actors, in particular her chemistry with Sally Hawkins as the “Stella” to her “Blanche”.  

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Blanchett and Hawkins as Blanche/Jasmine and Stella/Ginger

What reviews said of film / Cate:

“This is a film that draws deep from the well of A Streetcar Named Desire. Cate Blanchett, who has played Blanche du Bois onstage, is here cast as an updated version of Tennessee Williams’s anti-heroine, Blanche’s reveries about a faded Southern aristocracy replaced with contemporary delusions bred by life as lived among the 1 percent in Manhattan and the Hamptons. The film begins with Jasmine (née Jeanette) arriving in San Francisco, broke but still flying first class, the dazed victim of a financial scandal involving her former husband. Now homeless, she is forced to rely on the comfort of her estranged sister, Ginger, who is romantically involved with a blue-collar lug named Chili. (Although we see Chili in a wife-beater, he refrains from shouting, Hey, Ginnnnn-gerrrrrr!!!!) Like Streetcar, Blue Jasmine is the story of Jasmine’s further humbling, of upper-class pretension dashing against the rock of working-class earthiness; also like Streetcar, Allen’s work shares its heroine’s snobbery, the director as appalled as Jasmine by Chili’s and Ginger’s gaucheries, their lack of interest in high culture, their aspirational void”Vanity Fair

 

Blanchett, Blanche — the names seem fated for each. Mr. Allen has said that he didn’t see Ms. Blanchett play Tennessee Williams’s most famous creation in Liv Ullmann’s celebrated 2009 production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. (Jasmine’s appalled aside about being forced to move to Brooklyn after being priced out of Manhattan amusingly suggests why he didn’t.) Whatever his inspiration, he has been rummaging around in the classics for decades, so his appropriation of “Streetcar” doesn’t surprise. What does is his reimagining Blanche by way of another figure who changes depending on how you hold her up to the light, Ruth Madoff, the wife of Bernard L. Madoff, the investor turned avatar of a fallen world. It’s a masterly stroke that puts Jasmine’s dissembling into fresh, chilling perspective.

The allusions to “Streetcar” are copious and obvious, and spotting the quotations initially feels like a kind of humorous parlor game, from the French connection that links Blanche and Jasmine’s names to Mr. Allen’s staging of a violent skirmish, which echoes a similar one in Elia Kazan’s film adaptation. Underscoring the resemblances, Jasmine repeatedly explains that “Blue Moon” was playing when she met Hal, memories that evoke the blue piano that, as Williams wrote in “Streetcar,” expresses “the spirit of the life which goes on here.” In the play, Blanche also says that Stanley isn’t the type who goes for jasmine perfume, an aside that carries an accusation.” – Manohla Dargis, NYTimes

ScreenPrism on the similarities between Blue Jasmine and A Streetcar Named Desire.

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Blanchett and Joel Edgerton in Liv Ullman’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire

Reviews of Cate as Blanche on Stage:

“What Ms. Blanchett brings to the character is life itself, a primal survival instinct that keeps her on her feet long after she has been buffeted by blows that would level a heavyweight boxer. Ms. Blanchett’s Blanche is always on the verge of falling apart, yet she keeps summoning the strength to wrestle with a world that insists on pushing her away. Blanche’s burden, in existential terms, becomes ours. And a most particular idiosyncratic creature acquires the universality that is the stuff of tragedy. All the baggage that any “Streetcar” usually travels with has been jettisoned. Ms. Ullmann and Ms. Blanchett have performed the play as if it had never been staged before, with the result that, as a friend of mine put it, “you feel like you’re hearing words you thought you knew pronounced correctly for the first time.” Blessed perhaps with an outsider’s distance on an American cultural monument, Ms. Ullmann and Ms. Blanchett have, first of all, restored Blanche to the center of “Streetcar.” – NYTimes

More on Blue Jasmine:

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‘Blue Jasmine’ Part 1 – Actor as Auteur

In the first of three episodes about Blue Jasmine, we discuss Cate Blanchett as the auteur of the film. Despite not writing or directing it, Blue Jasmine would not be as strong or even the same without her performance. Murtada‘s guest this week is writer and critic Matthew Eng.

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Subscribe:  Apple Podcasts   /   Stitcher   /  Spotify  /  Google

Follow along, the film is streaming at Amazon.

What is the film about?

From IMDB: A New York socialite, deeply troubled and in denial, arrives in San Francisco to impose upon her sister. She looks a million, but isn’t bringing money, peace, or love…

When did it come out?

July 2013.

Who does Cate play?

Jasmine of course. One of her many titular characters.

How is Cate introduced?

Immediately and memorably. Jabbering away about her life and marriage to a stranger on a plane, sets the tone for how unstable the character is.

Box Office: Domestic = $33MM         Int’l = $66MM

Metacritic : 78     RT: 91

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The most memorable one liner in Blue Jasmine? Without a doubt.

Topics discussed:

  • The actor as auteur. Despite not writing or directing Blue Jasmine, the film would not be as strong or even the same with the performance.
  • From the beginning we know this is going to be a performance driven film, Blanchett just holds the screen. I knew when she said to the cab driver “Can I have some privacy?” while trembling.
  • To prove our theory that Blanchett is in fact the author of the film; she pointedly thanked the dialect coach in her Oscar acceptance speech for “bringing Sally and I together,” notoriously Allen doesn’t rehearse or give feedback to actors, though he did tell her “you are awful.”
  • The work of the costume designer and the makeup artist in helping Cate craft this performance.
  • Charting what collection of pills and booze Jasmine’s on at all times, and manifesting that in voice, body movement, sweat… the beat before every lie comes out of her mouse.
  • Her performance in relation to the other actors? Blanchett’s always dominant in movies but the nature of this part showcases that more. 
  • The film starts with a mention of “Blue Moon” and ends with it too, how that makes the performance so poignant.
  • Matthew wrote about both Juliette Binoche and Meryl Streep as auteurs of their movies.

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The climax is heartbreaking. We discuss at length.

Famous quotes:

SO MANY. Who gets the credit Allen or Blanchett?

  • “I saw you, Erika.”
  • “What does that stupidity even mean?”
  • “Anxiety, nightmares and a nervous breakdown, there’s only so many traumas a person can withstand until they take to the streets and start screaming.
  • “Tip big, boys!”
  • “Who do you have to sleep with around here to get a Stoli martini with a twist of lemon?”
  • “I haven’t shown my face socially in so long”
  • “New York, Park Avenue”
  • “This was playing on the Vineyard. “Blue Moon”. I used to know the words.”

 Scenes we liked:

  •  Everytime Cate is on screen basically.

What seemed off :

  •  Computer-class subplot – in a lesser actor’s hand the tone deafness of this would be unforgivable. Yet I saw it as another way Jasmine is self-sabotaging.

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Great Performance. Great Win. Great Speech.

Film within context of Cate’s career:

Considered the pinnacle of her career, won many awards for it including her 2nd Academy Award. It was a return to movie after a 6 year hiatus running the Sydney Theter Company.

 What reviews said of film / Cate:

“Blanchett’s lavish, almost operatic turn as Jasmine sloshes against the sides of this insubstantial movie like liquid in a too-small container (maybe the room-temperature Stoli Jasmine is continually downing) There are many moments in which, as a viewer, you notice and admire Blanchett’s gestures and inflections, but very few in which you understand her deluded character’s motivations from the inside. She disintegrates beautifully before our eyes, not for any specific set of reasons the film maps, but because that’s what tragic heroines like Blanche DuBois are there to do.” – Dana Stevens, Slate

In Blue Jasmine, Allen is back in full-on sourpuss mode, even as he purports to be providing a grand showcase for Blanchett, the performance was touching in places, but it was also mannered and precise, like an artfully torn piece of silk. Blanchett strikes each note as precisely as if she were hitting the bars on a xylophone, and in this way, she fits into Allen’s schematic perfectly. Stephanie Zacharek, The Village Voice.

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Jasmine clearly hates everyone around her.

“The movie is almost meant to belong to Blanchett. Allen has set most of the film on her face and within her hopped-up, motormouth diction. The year thus far has been short on great performances. Blanchett’s belongs to a sadly exclusive club. She’s played Blanche DuBois on the stage. For Allen, she turns the character from a Southern belle into a Stockard Channing in Six Degrees of Separation. But it’s not snobbery she playing. It’s displacement. The separation is from reality. Allen makes use of Blanchett’s statuesqueness. In Ginger’s apartment, at that dentist’s office, in a taxicab, on the glamourless sidewalks of the Mission, Jasmine seems to be in the wrong Wonderland. Blue Jasmine is the searching Allen of Another Woman and Alice, and Jasmine is almost the sort of scornful id that Judy Davis was so good at playing for him. But where Davis came at the comedy with bile and Mia Farrow in Alice with whimsy, Blanchett is going for something unstable but secret. When Jasmine recalls the humiliation of a friend catching her working at a Manhattan shoe store and sneaking out, she goes hard and delirious: “I saw you, Erica Bishop!” Allen has always written good parts for women. This is one of the few to seem made of magic. You actually get the sense that Allen has let Blanchett go off on some kind of adventure, that he planted a seed and this is the wildflower that grew.” – Wesley Morris, Grantland

More on Blue Jasmine:

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