By Christian DiMartino
Note: French Exit is actually a 2020 release, but it is just now getting its theatrical release where I live, so I shall be treating it as a normal review.
Guys, can we just talk about how fabulous Michelle Pfeiffer is? Here is a woman who, even at 62, could probably convert me. She exudes such confidence, such beauty, I imagine she could light up any room, and will continue to do so for the rest of her life. It is no wonder that she headlines French Exit, where she plays a woman of envy and dominance; every time she enters a room in this film, you know she’s the real deal. The difference between Pfeiffer and her character Frances though is that it’s almost like Pfeiffer is playing this character the way that she imagines people perceive her.
Azazel Jacobs’ French Exit earned Pfeiffer a much-deserved Golden Globe nomination a few months ago. The reason the film didn’t garner much Oscar attention though could be chalked down to a few things. One is that it’s just now getting a wide release near me, and another is that, well, quite simply, there is a good chance French Exit won’t be for everyone. Watching French Exit, the film before me was one that brimmed with quirky confidence, yet with that sort of confidence, it is sort of up to the viewer how they digest the film. It doesn’t start out as strange as it ultimately ends up being, but it also doesn’t start out as poignant as it ends up being, either. The film is all over the place, in both interesting ways and perhaps unsuccessful ways. Yet the great work of Pfeiffer elevates it all.
Pfeiffer plays Frances, who is kind of stuck up, but very unapologetically herself and also exudes with a sort of confidence perhaps only someone as fabulous as Pfeiffer could carry. As the film opens, we see her withdrawing her son Malcolm out of the private school he attends. We are unsure of the details surrounding this withdrawal, but flash forward a few years, and Frances and Malcolm (now played by Lucas Hedges) are essentially attached to the hip. They’re not close-close, but at the same time, they pretty much are always by each other’s side. 2020 might not have been kind to everyone, but by golly, was it kind to Hedges. Not only did he get to act beside Meryl Streep, Dianne Wiest and Candice Bergen in Let Them All Talk, but now he gets to be side by side, often right next to, Michelle Pfeiffer.
Anyways, Frances, who has hardly worked a day in her life, is told that her inheritance has run out, so they pretty much have to leave their place in New York. Malcolm, who is in a serious relationship with a girl (Imogen Poots) essentially tells her that he has to stick by his mother, who is offered the choice to stay in a friend’s apartment in Paris until they get on their feet. So off Frances, Malcolm, and their pet cat, nicknamed Small Frank, they go to France in terms of finding a new life. Well, Frances pretty much assumes she’ll die once she’s out of money, so there’s that. They also make friends while they’re over there too.
There are numerous ingredients on display in French Exit, and whether or not they work for you is to be determined. You will laugh before the gears of the plot are set in motion, because Pfeiffer handles such morbid snobbery gracefully. She essentially plays a debutante who, even despite being flat broke, lives her life as if nothing is the matter, yet by the film’s end, she unleashes a side of her that is raw and rather moving, in subtle ways, because we know that underneath this occasionally cold exterior is a full-blooded interior. Pfeiffer carries a lot of notes in French Exit, and she carries them beautifully, nailing every delivery while being utterly sexy and fabulous. It’s tremendous acting from a wonderful movie star (I would have given her an Oscar for Darren Aronofsky’s mother! too, but that’s another story).
Pfeiffer aside, French Exit won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and it all really depends on the audience’s reaction to the film’s often strange shift in gears. French Exit is hardly every serious, yet by the time the duo sets sail for Paris, something else happens in the comedic department, and much of it has to do with a character played by Danielle MacDonald, who Malcolm shacks up with and who also happens to be a clairvoyant aboard their cruise ship. The second this character enters the film, the film develops a completely different sense of humor, and depending on how willing you are to accept the silly, it’s quite silly.
Its tone isn’t always consistent, but when French Exit is funny, it is funny. I particularly like a character played by Valerie Mahaffey, though looking back on French Exit, I kind of enjoy all of the secondary characters. The film reaches a point where you stop and think to yourself, “this is pretty laid back.” Whether or not the tonal shifts and inconsistencies work for you remains to be seen. For what it is, French Exit is enjoyable- uneven, for sure, yet it’s at times so interestingly quirky that I’m relieved to see a movie with a somewhat bleak outlook go for something that is capable of being as funny as it is. The final assumption of French Exit though is that Jacob left a lot of the heavy lifting to the star magnitude of Michelle Pfeiffer, and at the end of the day, warts and all, he made the right call.