Based on Patrick DeWitt’s 2018 novel of the same name, French Exit (which he adapted for the screen) is a film that, in some ways, has no real right to exist. It’s dry and slightly absurd. It’s not exactly a fun story, but it’s also surprisingly compelling. It zigs when you expect it to zag; it’s deceptively deep while teetering on just this side of overdramatic. There’s not much to it beyond a motley group of overprivileged, disaffected people navigating problems most of us would be relieved to have. Oh, you can’t afford your posh New York City lifestyle so you’ll sail to France and live out your days in a Parisian penthouse? Oh, so sorry to hear that!
All that to say, I am entirely here for a film like French Exit (directed by Azazel Jacobs), with its passive aggressive rushes to judgement, its emotionally stunted interpersonal relationships, its quirky and unexpected storylines and most of all, the sharp, nuanced central performance from the divine Michelle Pfeiffer. She is Frances, a doyenne of Manhattan’s upper crust who finds herself about to lose the life she is very much accustomed to when her husband dies and, apparently, has left nothing on which for her or her grown son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), to survive. The two aren’t exactly close, but they’re all the other has and this seems enough to bond them out of necessity if not fondness. Well, Malcolm does have his fiancée, Susan (Imogen Poots, always a welcome addition to ensemble casts, as in the recently released The Father), but the couple can’t quite figure out how to tell Frances about their recent engagement, as Malcolm knows it will nearly break his mother’s already fragile sense of self.
They don’t even get the chance, though, because in order to save what resources she has left, Frances decides to upend their lives and resettle in Paris, leaving Malcolm, who depends on her financially, at least, no real choice but to leave Susan and go with her. All this transpires without much fanfare but is nevertheless deliciously funny in its droll execution, Frances in a perpetual pout and with general, seething-under-the-surface disbelief that all this is happening to her of all people. But appearances are everything in this world, and she’d rather die than let on that this isn’t entirely her choice, a next phase in her well-lived, well-appointed life. So the two board a cruise ship on the Atlantic (who flies if not the peasants, really?) headed east, just each other, their bags and their black cat who’s joining them for the journey.
Oh right, the cat. At the risk of spoiling just a little of French Exit‘s many unexpected twists and turns, Frances brings their unassuming black cat with them on their trip abroad, an animal we learn she believes hosts the spirit of her now deceased husband (Tracy Letts). She’s determined to commune with the cat and get to Franklin in the process, which is where Danielle MacDonald’s Madeleine comes into play, a medium Malcolm meets on the ship who says she can hear what the cat is saying. But Malcolm lost track of Madeleine after disembarking and so, as one does, Frances hires a private investigator to track her down. If that’s not wacky enough for you, trust me, it all gets much more complicated, much more ludicrous and much more fun (for us, at least).
In the midst of all the absurdity, DeWitt has crafted an insightful send-up of broken and damaged interpersonal relationships, giving Frances and Malcolm, in particular, just enough self awareness to know that they way they’re operating with each other and those closest to them isn’t exactly healthy. Meanwhile, Jacobs puts them and all the players around them in close enough quarters where it becomes enjoyable just to sit back and watch them all interact with each other (though, thankfully, he knows when to give Pfieffer her close-ups, and we genuinely love to see it). French Exit may not be everyone’s cup of tea, particularly if you prefer your dialogue more casual, your storylines more subtle and your comedy more overt. What this gem of a production offers instead is a sort of good time at the movies for grown ups where the comedy is in the practically imperceptible internal moments and the ensemble’s clearly dysfunctional connections and liaisons, both of which only we seem to be most aware. Frances, Malcolm and the rest of their entourage are perhaps too far gone to salvage their stunted, maladjusted relationships…but it sure is fun to watch them try.
French Exit is now playing in select theaters. Follow CDC, health department and venue guidelines if attending indoor screenings.
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