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Review: French Exit

April 2, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Frances Price (Michelle Pfeiffer), the main character in the new film French Exit, is a former New York socialite who doesn’t really know what to do with herself now that she has found she is still alive. You see, she always assumed that she would die before her late husband’s money ran out.

When Frances is no longer able to afford living in New York, her friend Joan (Susan Coyne) offers up her empty apartment in Paris for her to stay at. Frances moves there with her young adult son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) and their cat, Small Frank, a sleek black feline with an intense stare and a secret identity.

The plan is for her to establish a new life in Paris, while burning through what’s left of her cash. This gives you some idea of what to expect from the film’s plot, but, then again, not really, as the story sort of meanders and takes shape as it goes along. I do not mean this in a bad way. There is an odd sort of enjoyment to be found in just sitting down and seeing where French Exit takes us, with its odd interludes and even odder cast of characters.

Directed by Azazel Jacobs, working from a screenplay by Canadian novelist Patrick deWitt, this is a Canadian-Irish co-production that is set primarily in France, and it feels like several films in one. It’s a relationship comedy, a character drama, and a screwball caper with surrealist touches and hints of the supernatural. And yet, somehow, it works in its own weird way. There are hints of Whit Stillman here, and maybe a few notes of Wes Anderson, but French Exit still manages to feel like wholly its own thing, and the unique pleasures that the film offers are plentiful.

At the centre of the film is Pfeiffer, who reminds us how magnetic a screen presence she can be. Frances is a very odd character, the sort that casually confesses to fantasizing about burning her house down and lights the flowers on fire at a restaurant when the waiter isn’t moving fast enough with the check. She is probably a manic depressive, though this is never directly addressed in the film. It’s a very juicy role, and Pfeiffer digs into the character’s mix of icy coldness and fragile neuroticism in a way that is compelling to watch. Hedges matches her beat for beat, finding subtle nuance in his portrayal of a long-haired rich kid whose flat, disaffected demeanour masks abandonment issues from his childhood.

Aside from the memorable mother-son pairing of Pfeiffer and Hedges, the film also features a sparkling ensemble cast. There’s Imogen Poots as Malcolm’s secret fiancée that he leaves in New York; Danielle Macdonald as a fortune teller that he meets on the cruise ship to France; Valerie Mahaffey as an admirer of Frances who is desperate to have her as a friend; and Isaach De Bankolé as a private investigator who is brought on through a strange turn of events. As this growing cast of characters start to interact with each other, French Exit takes on the feel of a classic farce, with multiple story threads converging and relationship problems coming to a head.

This is all presented in a very mannered and very measured way, and the film has a very specific tone that won’t be to everyone’s tastes. The humour is as dry as the martinis that are sipped by the characters throughout, and there is a distinct undercurrent of melancholia running through it as well. But fans of very dry and very droll comedies might just find this quirky, bittersweet character piece to be a treat. I really enjoyed it, and I can imagine it growing on me even more on repeat viewings.

French Exit is now playing in select Canadian theatres, where they are open. It’s being distributed in Canada by Elevation Pictures.

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