French Exit, 2020.
Directed by Azazel Jacobs.
Starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges, Valerie Mahaffey, Imogen Poots, Danielle Macdonald, Susan Coyne and Tracy Letts.
A previously wealthy widow and her son travel to Paris with the last of their money, and the cat whose body she claims her husband occupies.
Highbrow quirk is an interesting thing. From its elegantly barbed dialogue to the piano-heavy strains of Nick deWitt’s gentle score, Azazel Jacobs’s drama French Exit meanders along in a soup of classy, well-acted silliness. It’s not ground-breaking by any stretch, but the likeable material is elevated to a higher level by a tremendous late career performance from Hollywood powerhouse Michelle Pfeiffer.
She portrays widowed socialite Frances, who leaves New York City for Paris with the last of her money, having sold almost all of her belongings amid financial turmoil. Along for the ride is her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) and their cat Small Frank, which Frances believes houses the soul of her late husband. The boat ride over the Atlantic brings them into the path of medium Madeleine (Danielle Macdonald), who allows mother and son to communicate with their departed family member.
Pfeiffer’s trademark icy charisma sits at the heart of French Exit. She’s mercurial to the extreme and utterly free of inhibitions. In one scene, she’s discovered sharpening a knife in the dark while a dispute over a restaurant bill leads to her starting a fire in the middle of the eaterie. The genius of the performance, though, is in the sadness Pfeiffer finds below the surface. Her facade is that of an untouchable enigma, who doesn’t care much about anything, but Pfeiffer’s careful look of constant scrutiny belies a mind struggling with far more turmoil than Frances would like to admit.
The leading lady sucks up a great deal of the real estate here, but Lucas Hedges finds room to deliver another of his twitchy youngsters. His relationship with his sort-of-fiancée – played by Imogen Poots – is fascinating in its awkwardness and certainly could’ve stood to receive more of the movie’s focus. Hedges also gets intriguing scenes with Macdonald, who was so brilliant as the star of 2017 comedy Patti Cake$, but again the film seems to consider their connection to be simply an excuse for more quirk. Ultimately, both characters exist to fulfil Pfeiffer’s arc.
French Exit is best when Jacobs leans in to the odder aspects of the story, adapted by Patrick deWitt from his own novel. Valerie Mahaffey stands out as fellow émigré Madame Reynard with a sweet-voiced turn as a woman desperate to befriend Frances, whom she idolises. A comic interlude in which Frances and Malcolm discover a sex toy in her freezer is delightfully strange, but these moments are sadly few and far between. The same is true of the moments in which Small Frank is able to communicate with his family via séances and using the voice of Tracy Letts. It’s a fun device, which the film never quite pushes to its logical conclusion.
But this is the Pfeiffer show and she’s simply terrific from start to finish. At just 62, she likely has a lot of career to go, but French Exit is a statement performance from an actor at the top of her game. It’s a crowded field for Best Actress at this year’s delayed Oscars and spots will be at a premium. However, only a fool would bet against Pfeiffer smoking and sniping her way to the stage of the Dolby Theater. The film is forgettable, but its leading lady is anything but.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.