Michelle Pfeiffer in French Exit (2021)
French Exit is a surreal film to watch unfold. Directed by Azazel Jacobs and based on the book by Patrick DeWitt, the story subverts expectations at any given moment. Weaving through humour and tragedy, the film takes wild turns as a comedy of errors pushing towards unpredictability. While not always easy to jump on board and embrace the ridiculousness of it all, Michelle Pfeiffer proves to be the perfect anchor. She plays Frances Price, a Manhattan socialite whose life is on the verge of falling to pieces. Faced with major financial troubles as her inheritance is running out, she takes up a friend’s offer to move into a small apartment in Paris with her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) and their cat. While there, we are introduced to loose acquaintances and loved ones, as they start scratching the surface of an enigmatic, larger-than-life protagonist who plays her cards close to her chest. So much of this film is about what isn’t said between people, which brings up an intriguing question of what the characters are choosing not to reveal. French Exit is full of eccentric characters interacting in a world where nothing is as it seems. DeWitt’s story gives the supremely talented Michelle Pfeiffer, along with a strong supporting cast, an interesting chaotic canvas to work with.
Frances is the star of her own show. Every move she makes is followed by a spotlight, as she performs center stage of her own life to the point where her character feels theatrical. It’s a larger-than-life role that Pfeiffer plays the absurdity of to entertaining degrees, from her zinging line deliveries to the way she carries herself. She keeps the laughs coming, that is until her circumstances become more and more reflective of the distress she feels (particularly towards herself). Pfeiffer balances on a fine line between portraying someone who lives such a narcissistic existence and who is also haunted by her past choices. Having remained absent from her son’s life for most of his childhood, her decision to pick him up from school out of the blue one day (as shown in a flashback scene) rejoins the two but can’t make up for lost time. For most of the film, Frances and Malcolm speak to each other matter-of-factly in brief moments. Their relationship is a reflection of things that never really get to be said, particularly between a parent and child. Only until Frances realizes the substantial passing of time, and how much she loves her son, are they able to have a more revealing conversation addressing why she left in the first place. Pfeiffer and Hedges share an interesting monologue where these two characters are faced with her reasoning. It’s one of the few moments in the film that provides a clearer window into the vulnerability of Frances especially, who carries herself with all-encompassing grandeur.
The story of French Exit, which Patrick DeWitt adapted for the screen, builds structure around characters who exist often in their own worlds. With an increased focus on Frances as the protagonist, everyone in her orbit seems to exist based on what they mean to her (and her son) and how they fit specifically in her world. Everyone in her orbit (whether related by blood or by fantasized friendship) is vying for something to say, without really knowing how best to say it. Their dynamics raise an interesting train of thought about the influence Frances has on others, and about what people project onto her. After the move to Paris, Frances and Malcolm get invited to a party, which she expects to be a glitzy high society gathering. But when they arrive, they realize it’s a party of three with Mme. Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey), one of Frances’ long-time admirers from New York who thinks they ought to be friends. This “party” sequence is a fabulous example of how much acting relies on reacting. Mme. Reynard is a lonely widow who sees an opportunity for kinship with Frances; they’re just about the same age and presumably ran in the same socialite circles back in New York. She misses the Manhattan socializing, and so discovering Frances’ move to Paris opens up a world of possibilities for her to live again. Pfeiffer and Mahaffey play off each other so brilliantly; their scene is one of many moments in the film that is full of disengagement, curiosity and eccentricity as these characters find each other under odd circumstances. The disengagement in particular is so extreme throughout the film that even when otherworldly elements are introduced later on in the story, the characters are completely unfazed.
In addition to the strained mother-son relationship, there’s an underlying resonating theme of craving for connection without knowing how best to achieve it. The characters in this film interact and are brought together in such an unusual way. The story sprawls into a big ensemble piece halfway through where everyone vies to make sense of their circumstances and determine where they fit. It’s an ensemble of great actors including Imogen Poots, Danielle Macdonald, Susan Coyne, Isaach De Bankolé, and Tracy Letts. Among the cast, the supporting star of the show is indeed Valerie Mahaffey who steals every scene. Mme. Reynard is a great supporting role that pushes for authenticity and sincerity in the most absurd of moments. She so badly wants a connection to Frances and as the film progresses, makes herself at home in Frances’ apartment, a setting that becomes almost like a magical realm in which everyone who enters seems to stumble upon some insight about themselves.
While the absurdity of the story makes for some fun exploration of where these characters will end up, it is sometimes a chore to find an emotional connection beyond Pfeiffer and (to a lesser extent by way of screen time) Mahaffey. French Exit is a strange melancholic journey, one that entices yet pushes away as circumstances grow more absurd. The story takes a big turn halfway through, and nothing is what it seems especially from that point forward. But the consistent anchor is Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance, an entertaining concoction of emotions that play humorously until the mask is off and Frances’ ghosts come back to haunt her. French Exit is an interesting rollercoaster of absurdism about larger-than-life characters who are searching for real connections to each other.