Gazing over her forty-plus year career and considering the fifty movies to her credit, I’m not sure Michelle Pfeiffer has ever been handed a role this juicy. In the new dark comedy “French Exit” director Azazel Jacobs and screenwriter Patrick deWitt give Pfeiffer a deliciously surly lead character and a script that allows her plenty of room to unearth the character’s well hidden layers. It’s an odd and snarky concoction with a stabbing sense of humor and that ultimately stays afloat thanks to Pfeiffer’s fun performance.
For the unrefined (apparently such as myself), a ‘French exit‘ is when someone up and leaves an event or gathering without formally saying goodbye. The film’s title alludes to several things, all of which come into focus as the story moves forward. It’s something Frances Price (Pfeiffer) would know all about. The Manhattan heiress has soaked herself in New York City’s high society, blowing through her late husband’s fortune against the warnings of the family accountant. Now he hits her with the news that the money’s gone. “What did you think was going to happen? What was your plan?” the exasperated accountant asks. “My plan was to die before the money ran out. But I kept and keep not dying and here I am.” It’s a very Frances-like response.
As most of us do, Frances has a friend with an spare apartment in Paris. The friend named Joan (Susan Coyne) offers it to Frances so she can get away, clear her head, and have a place to stay until she can get back on her feet. Frances breaks the news to her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) that the well has run dry and they’re moving to France. Malcolm is inexplicably hitched to his mother’s side despite being secretly engaged to a young woman named Susan (Imogen Poots). Frances doesn’t care for Susan and Malcolm doesn’t have the guts to tell his mother they’re getting married.
All of that sets up a story full of unusual turns, wacky encounters, and a final act that’s both head-scratching and slyly funny. Frances and Malcolm cross paths with a motley crew of side characters including a shady fortune teller (Danielle Macdonald), a neurotic neighbor in Paris (Valerie Mahaffey), and a private detective (Isaach de Bankolé) who’s hired but ends up sticking around. Oh, and a black cat named Small Frank who adds an ever stranger layer to the story. In some ways all of these characters give Frances a crash-course on how people live outside of her former social circles. They’re people she would have never spent a moment with in her former life, but now finds them enlightening in an unusual way. Or does she? It’s hard to tell.
It’s all a bit of a farce that doesn’t always work but it’s held together by Pfeiffer. Fashionably dressed to the hilt with her strawberry blonde locks sitting on the shoulders of her slender elegant frame, Pfeiffer embodies the defiant fading socialite. She’s brutally honest to a fault, impulsive, and also a bit twisted. Case in point, we learn that she’s the one who discovered her husband’s body after he died. But instead of immediately reporting it to the authorities she took a weekend shopping trip and called them when she returned. It’s a wacky little character detail that somehow fits Frances even though it doesn’t make much sense. And that emphasizes one of the film’s weaknesses. Several things in the movie’s back-end doesn’t make a lot of sense.
But back to Pfeiffer, what keeps her performance so compelling is the underlying sadness that she finds in Frances. Despite her icy could-care-less exterior, Frances is carrying more emotional baggage than she lets on. Jacobs and deWitt smartly latches onto their leading lady who is the film’s one constant. Both Pfeiffer and Frances fit right into the movie’s chief goal of addressing privilege and upper-class entitlement with a wry satirical bite. I just wish the rest of the movie fit as nicely. “French Exit” is set for a limited release February 12th before opening wide on April 2nd.
VERDICT – 3 STARS