Frances Price is tired of life. And now that she has barely anything left to live on, she’s ready to give it up. In French Exit, Michelle Pfeiffer plays the beautiful, aging dowager who takes her grown son and her talking cat from Manhattan to a friend’s empty apartment in Paris. There, Frances gives away what’s left of her cash to people who least expect it. She does this more out of noblesse oblige than a genuine spirit of giving, but it’s strangely affecting all the same, which is a good way to sum up the overall impression left by this unusual movie.
French Exit is based on Patrick Dewitt’s 2018 novel of the same name, a satire that was billed as a “tragedy of manners.” Dewitt’s screenplay and Azazel Jacobs’ paced direction give French Exit the surrealist, thousand-yard-stare quality of a 1990s Hal Hartley film gone high society. The characters move and speak with calculated distance from their emotions, and every moment is a set piece where the absurdity and pathos feel anchored to real life.
Frances has a quick mind and a sharp tongue but, physically, she appears to be fading like an old newspaper clipping. Her hair isn’t red, brown, or blond, but the overprocessed, everything-yet-nothing
non-color of tresses that have given up. Her cheeks are dusty with too much powder. Her gestures and shifting facial expressions happen both too quickly and too slowly. It’s a career performance from Pfeiffer, who shows heretofore unseen range, simultaneously conveying sadness, manic wit, hostility, love, and terminal ennui, among other fleeting states of being. She completely sells the talking cat (voiced by Tracy Letts), who is the reincarnation of her late husband. Their wet-eyed son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), is a bit of a drip. It’s hard to tell if he’s depressed or just a mama’s boy, and he’s the movie’s least compelling character. But this is a movie of women, and character actress Valerie Mahaffey (Sully) is its most welcome surprise. She plays another aging dowager, the wacky yet unflappable Mme. Reynard, who cleverly inserts herself into the Prices’ world. She scored an Independent Spirit Award Nomination for the role.
French Exit was released in theaters in February, and it has received plenty of critical attention. Some have complained that the movie piles on quirkiness at its own expense, but I disagree. It’s silly in a charming way, yet it delivers an edge of authentic grief.
Dark dramedy, rated R, 113 minutes, DVD, Blu-ray May 11, video on demand June 15, 3 chiles