French Exit, 2021.
Directed by Azazel Jacobs.
Starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges, Tracy Letts, Valerie Mahaffey, Susan Coyne, Imogen Poots, Danielle Macdonald, Isaach De Bankolé, Daniel DiTomasso, Eddie Holland, Matt Holland, Christine Lan, Robert Higden, and Larry Day.
An aging Manhattan socialite living on what’s barely left of her inheritance moves to a small apartment in Paris with her son and cat.
It doesn’t take long before the reasons pile up in regards to loathing the characters of French Exit, but here’s the most telling: audiences are supposed to empathize with the wealthy 12-years widowed Frances (Michelle Pfeiffer, who at least plays the role of privileged and condescending with intermittently amusing bite) has spent years ignoring her financial advisor that the money left behind is going to dry up. There’s going broke for legitimately unfortunate circumstances and then there’s introducing a protagonist who not only went broke because of their own dumbassery (I don’t care if that’s not actually a word) but is going to be financially stable anyway moving into an upper-class apartment in Paris of all places. Let me break out the world’s tiniest violin because some rich people are being upended from Manhattan call me to France…
Frances also has a son named Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) stuck in a pickle struggling to tell his mother that he has proposed to his girlfriend Susan (Imogen Poots, who deserves so much better than this object of a character), which is naturally going to complicate the relationship since he’s being dragged along to Paris and potentially never coming back. There’s a real conflict on what to do with her, except it’s essentially made meaningless as Lucas remains committed to his mother prompting the questions of why and does he even actually love this woman? Susan does get a nice “fuck you” moment over the phone as it takes Lucas weeks to get into contact with her after settling into Paris, which would have been a high point if that particular story arc didn’t do a wrongheaded 180 that will have viewers siding with a character that openly expresses that these people are selfish and crazy.
The tone of the proceedings is played out like director Azazel Jacobs (who make no mistake is actually a talented filmmaker known for great efforts such as The Lovers) went on a binge of Wes Anderson movies and decided he wanted to mimic that presentation, subsequently coming across Patrick DeWitt’s novel of the same name and then deciding to adapt it would be the best route for this creative exercise. Admittedly, there are some truly batshit fantastical elements to French Exit that are endearing, namely regular collaborator Tracy Letts voicing Frances’ dead husband from beyond the grave whose essence lives inside of their cat appropriately dubbed Small Frank.
However, what’s primarily here is somewhat of a redemption arc that sees Frances using her remaining days to change as a person by both making friends (generally people she would otherwise look down on) and handing away the small amount of money she has left to those such as homeless people and waiters that could use it more. The problem is that the absurdity of it all never gels with the desire to explore these characters. French Exit (and no other movie for that matter) doesn’t need likable characters to be functionally engaging, but horrible people on the path of enlightenment can’t be presented with this astounding level of emptiness depth.
Generally, there is also the impression that something is lost in translation for bad films based on novels, but in this case, I’m not entirely sure I would even enjoy reading French Exit. The meat of this story being told is dead on arrival and no amount of the licks from a cat can bring it to life in another form. Similarly, off-kilter characters such as fortunetellers and lonely widows aren’t enough to raise enjoyment when the brand of comedy here involves jokes about dildos and having sex.
It’s also clear that a good chunk of French Exit is about Frances and Malcolm coming to terms with the baggage Frank has left to both of them, culminating in a final scene harkening back to the framing device of estranged mother and son reuniting after his passing. Perhaps if all of that was simply at the front of the film the rest of the story would play out with slightly more understanding of that inseparable bond, but it still wouldn’t salvage the mess that springs forth.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com