NYFF 2020: French Exit

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

French Exit is the second offering from the New York Film Festival I’ve rented, and I rented it because the Oscar buzz surrounding Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance is already quite strong. A few years ago, she starred in a little-seen Sundance darling called Where is Kyra? and it was a performance I very much appreciated. Pfeiffer played against type as a destitute New Yorker who begins to cash her dead mother’s social security checks after she finds herself jobless and nearly homeless. Since then, Pfeiffer has been having fun in deliciously campy roles in films like mother! and Disney’s Maleficent sequel. French Exit has the best performance of Pfeiffer’s career. The movie around it, however, could be better.

Frances Price (Pfeiffer) is 65-year-old socialite widow who has never worked a day in her life. Her accountant has been warning her for the past 10 years that her money is beginning to run out. She decides to illegally sell off her furniture and belongings, and take the money from that and move via cruise ship to an apartment in Paris that a friend has offered to her, with her adult son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) and cat Small Frank.

You hear the storyline of the suddenly penniless rich people forced away from their lives and you immediately feel like you know how this is going to go. This is not a Schitt’s Creek-type story where the insufferable rich people gradually become more endearing and lovable as they learn more about the world around them. Frances and Malcom grow increasingly bitter and more hateful the longer they’re in Paris, and the story is essentially about how estranged this relationship is, and the unsaid cruelties that linger in this kind of family over years of living in a mansion and not having to see each other very often.

Like I said, this is the performance of Pfeiffer’s career. The character of Frances speaks to everything Pfeiffer does best. In the beginning, she’s going full camp – the society diva in the fur coat and stilettos who purrs withering one-liners in between drags from cigarettes and sips of martinis. But there’s a vulnerability beneath the steely exterior that shows a desperate woman on the verge of a total mental breakdown. Frances always thought her life would run out before the money did, and now that the opposite has happened, she finds herself stuck in Paris, unsure of where to go next. There’s also the guilt deep down she’d never admit to, over the life that she gave her son, as it becomes painfully clear how much the two share in common.

I’m still not completely sold on Lucas Hedges yet, but I’ll admit that he’s getting better with every performance. An early scene where Malcolm brings flowers to his girlfriend at a diner, only to break the news that he’s moving, really sets the stage for this character and the ground we’re going to explore with him. He’s handling this sensitive moment with the insensitivity of his mother, and having two absent parents has left him emotionally ill-equipped in many aspects of daily life, and that’s a theme we explore throughout the film that Hedges plays quite well.

In the supporting cast, we have Danielle Macdonald as Madeleine, a fortune teller Malcolm befriends on the cruise ship. We also have Valerie Mahaffey as Mme. Reynard, an old acquaintance of Frances’ who looks her up after they get into town. There’s a sequence in the latter half of the movie where the film’s complete supporting cast gathers to stay in the apartment for no apparent reason, and it’s a sequence that’s played for sitcommy laughs, and it feels out of place.

French Exit is a biting surrealist black comedy in its first half, where the acid wit of the tone works best. It does try to become more meaningful, if not endearing, in the second half, and that’s where it stumbles. As these characters try to find meaning to their situation, it becomes more and more obvious that it’s just not there, and there really might be no redemption for these people. It intentionally leaves the viewer cold.

Azazel Jacobs directs this from a screenplay by Patrick deWitt, who is adapting his own novel. And the tone is kind of inconsistent. I would have preferred this to either fully go for the absurdist nature of the comedy, or find a way to really make us care about these characters and why they matter to each other, and the film doesn’t really commit to either. Michelle Pfeiffer, however, knows exactly who her character is every step of the way. This is ultimately one of those awards-season films like Still Alice or Judy or The Iron Lady, where the leading actress is giving an undeniably remarkable performance in a film that isn’t always up to her level.

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