How you feel about French Exit will largely come down to your feelings about Michelle Pfeiffer – one of those timeless screen beauties with an army of rusted-on admirers. Pfeiffer dominates Azazel Jacobs’s offbeat comedy so completely that even when she isn’t on screen her presence can still be felt. Yet the cost of this unchallenged ascendency is the shrinkage of the supporting characters.
It may be a feast for Pfeiffer fans (pardon the tongue-twister) but every other member of the cast is at best quirky, at worst a cypher or a caricature. The story itself is an uneven concoction that gradually loses its charm as it becomes more surreal and meandering. It’s one of those productions that grow more cloying as it seeks to surprise and beguile the viewer. This is, in brief, a movie that will polarise its audience.
Pfeiffer plays Frances Price, an ice-cold Manhattan socialite on the verge of insolvency. It has been ten years since the death of Frances’s husband, Frank, and she has finally run through all of his money. She tells the family lawyer that her plan was to die before it was used up but unfortunately she outlasted her fortune.
Frances lives with her son, Malcolm, played by a relentlessly inert Lucas Hedges. After ignoring Malcolm for most of his childhood, on becoming a widow Frances decided to liberate her son from the expensive boarding school in which he was imprisoned. They have been inseparable ever since, but Malcolm’s entire personality has been subsumed by his mother. At the start of the movie we learn he is secretly engaged to Susan (Imogen Poots), but hasn’t been able to tell Frances.
The problem is that Frances can’t afford her Manhattan lifestyle any more. The house, the paintings and everything else have to be liquidated. Salvation comes in the form of her friend, Joan (Susan Coyne), who invites Frances to occupy the Paris apartment that she and her husband rarely use. When Frances tells Malcolm they are moving to Paris his secret engagement is the first casualty.
Travelling by ocean liner, Frances, Malcolm and their black cat, Little Frank, set off for France. En route Malcolm has a brief fling with a chubby psychic, Madeleine (Danielle Macdonald), who will re-enter the story at a later stage.
Settled into the Paris apartment, Frances sets about spending her remaining money with reckless abandon. Or rather, with programmatic efficiency. From this point the story becomes increasingly bizarre, with the introduction of Valerie Mahaffey as Madame Reynard, an eccentric widow who appoints herself their special frend, and the revelation that the cat is really the reincarnation of Frances’s dead husband. A laid-back detective (Isaach De Bankolé) is dispatched to find Madeleine. Séances are held, and soon – for no apparent reason – everyone seems to be living in the apartment.
Is this weird enough for you yet? There are a few more twists to come, including the reappearance of Susan with a ghastly new boyfriend, but by now the narrative has locked into a spiral that’s going nowhere fast.
The film is based on a novel by acclaimed Canadian author, Patrick DeWitt, who has also written the screenplay – so it can’t be said that the plot has grown incoherent in translation from one medium to another. Nevertheless I came away suspecting the book would have explained a lot that the movie leaves unresolved.
If I can’t be entirely negative about French Exit it’s because there is such a profusion of new details appearing from one scene to the next that it always seems something significant is about to happen. For the most part this expectation is disappointed but the detail still has an impact. Why, for instance, does Madame Reynard keep a dildo in the freezer? In most movies the convention is that if a gun introduced into the story it will inevitably be used. Apparently the same rule doesn’t apply to dildos.
The other strength of the film, and perhaps the only thing that holds it together, is Michelle Pfeiffer’s commanding performance as the world-weary, street-wise matriarch around whom the other characters revolve like satellites. There are paradoxes to Frances’s character that are not easily unravelled. She strikes a ferociously hard bargain with the valuer preparing an inventory of her household effects, but upon receiving the money she begins to throw it away in the form of lavish tips and gifts to strangers.
Likewise, her relationship with Malcolm is almost incestuously close but she couldn’t care less if he were left without a penny. Her lack of concern verges on cruelty because she has virtually created her son as a passive, child-adult with no career, no apparent ambition or sense of purpose.
At the beginning of the film Frances is intolerant of fools and upstarts but by the end she has allowed her borrowed apartment to become a flop house for every passing acquaintance. Having carefully preserved Little Frank, the supernatural cat, for a decade, she suddenly develops murderous impulses. Even her feelings for the dead-but- still-present husband undergo a series of changes. Does she love him or hate him? Does she simply tolerate him as an unalterable fact of life – or the After Life?
If there is one glowing thread that allows us to understand Frances’s complexities it is her drive towards death. She is progressing towards her own death with the same inexorability as Geoffrey Firmin in Malcolm Lowry’s novel, Under the Volcano, adapted for the cinema by John Huston in 1984. Yet for Frances death is elusive, avoiding her every approach. She has been preparing the way by ridding herself of earthly possessions and chastening her pride, but her morbid preoccupation is not matched by any physical decline. Frances gives the impression she could step out of life without a moment’s hesitation but there is no hint of weakness in the classy, self-possessed façade she turns to the world. Perhaps the greatest paradox of both Frances and this film is that it’s only by invoking death that one begins to make sense of the comedy.
Directed by Azazel Jacobs
Written by Patrick DeWitt, after his own novel
Starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges, Valerie Mahaffey, Imogen Poots, Danielle Macdonald, Isaach De Bankolé, Susan Coyne, Tracy Letts
UK/USA, rated M, 113 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 27 March, 2021