By Erica Abeel
Defiant and tonally offbeat, French Exit mirrors, in a sense, its female protagonist, who doesn’t give a damn what the world thinks of her.
“Rich bitch,” you might think on first sighting Frances Price, as she swans into a prep school in a mink-lined trench coat to collect a 12-year-old son she’s barely seen since his birth. Except that the woman in question is Michelle Pfeiffer camping it up as a larger-than-life diva who becomes less easy to dismiss as her curdled backstory unfolds.
You may even come to sympathize with Frances. More to the point, though, French Exit doesn’t particularly want you to sympathize with Frances — at least not in any conventional sense. Based on the novel by Patrick DeWitt (who also wrote the screenplay), it seizes on two familiar tropes — a dysfunctional family; a woman as architect of her own destiny — and whips them into an unstable mix of snark, surrealism, and pathos.
The filmmakers throw the story out there in a spirit of take it or leave it, in flagrant violation of the dictum that characters must at least be “relatable,” if not likable. Defiant and tonally offbeat, French Exit mirrors, in a sense, Frances, who doesn’t give a damn what the world thinks of her.
As the closing film of the 2020 edition of the notoriously selective New York Film Festival, it could be expected that the American director Azazel Jacobs (The Sisters Brothers) would deliver something startlingly offbeat. Frances, a wealthy socialite, is told by her financial advisor that she’s burned through her money. She’ll be obliged to sell her remaining assets for a sum that can in no way support her cosseted lifestyle, which includes the exquisitely appointed townhouse she shares with her son Malcolm (a game Lucas Hedges). “My plan was to die before the money ran out, but I kept, and keep, not dying,” Frances says in a high-handed drawl Pfeiffer has polished to a fine sheen. The stylized deadpan of the dialogue would not be out of place in a Wes Anderson fantasia.
As it happens, Frances has a best friend (Susan Coyne) who offers the use of her Paris apartment. This solution is presented matter-of-factly, as if who doesn’t have a friend with a Paris apartment standing empty? The plan to flee to the City of Lights includes displacing her son Malcolm, too — only this overgrown prepster is somewhat engaged to Susan (Imogen Poots), a fact he’s afraid to share with mom. “I am trying to fall out of love with you,” Malcolm’s beleaguered fiancée tells him. Also of the party is a black cat named Small Frank, who appears to host the spirit of Frances’s dead husband.
During a crossing on an ocean liner that looks like a cut-and-paste job — the ship never moves — Malcolm has a one-nighter with the ship’s medium (Danielle Macdonald), who will later play a role in summoning the spirit of Frances’s dead husband. Frances crams Small Frank with sedatives to smuggle him past customs, popping a few herself, and weaves into her new life. Once mother and son settle into their perfect Parisian apart, with a pink or gold drink always at hand, the film also settles nicely into its antic groove.
Frances, it turns out, is somewhat notorious for having left her dead husband where he dropped, and jaunting off to Vail (she had her reasons). This inspires an invitation from a lonely American ex-pat (Valerie Mahaffey, hilarious) who invites mother and son for an evening that includes cassoulet, a steady pour of martinis, and a dildo in the freezer. After the cat runs away – he, too, has his reasons — Frances enlists the help of the shipboard clairvoyant and a detective (the delectable Isaak de Bankole) to locate him.
Compounding the mayhem, Susan, Malcolm’s fiancée, bursts in with her new fiancé, a straight-arrow dude in finance. He’s quickly dismissed by the Boho household, even though he “finds poetry in numbers.” This collection of lost souls and eccentrics bunk in together on chairs or the foldout sofa like a wacko pajama party.
The warmth and comfort of community, though, is belied by Frances’s plan to not outlive her money; the shrinking pile of euros, which she sprinkles among street people in the Place Des Vosges, is like an hourglass marking her journey toward the exit. It would be such a cliché to commit suicide after the glamour years have passed, her best friend scolds. Frances has it in mind to first settle accounts with her departed husband through Small Frank (gruffly voiced by Tracy Letts, no cute kitty, this). The story veers unexpectedly into pathos, as Frances tries to placate a son ignored by his father: “He was an emotional moron, not evil.” Switching tones, Small Frank objects to the soul-searching: “I’m a cat, thinking about worms and fleas.”
The commingling of pathos with screwball antics is tricky to pull off, and Azazel Jacobs largely succeeds. The story plays out in its own weird time zone, with not a cell phone or computer in sight; the Paris apartment functions as a one-set play. At the center is Frances, a terrific showcase for Pfeiffer in an industry notoriously lacking in roles for older women. The camera revels in the lovely planes and angles of her face. Citing French Exit as among her “top 5 of wonderful filmmaking experiences,” Pfeiffer is widely considered a nom lock for the Oscars.
Still, the role is mined with challenges (her Frances is drawn on a composite of socialites she’s known, Pfeiffer says). In Stephen Frears’s Cheri, Pfeiffer played an aging courtesan we rooted for. The same can’t exactly be said of Frances. This grande dame is “retiring” to Paris, yet she’s never, as she says, worked a day in her life. That she was a mother kind of slipped her mind, until she reclaimed Malcolm when he was 12. A parody of unwholesome parenting, she’s made her son into her chief companion and dismisses his fiancée — “oh to be young-ish and in love-ish,” she mocks. What’s refreshing here — or reprehensible — is that Frances shows no wish to redeem herself, or “grow,” in the standard sense, and stop bemoaning her new impoverished estate and pull up her socks and deal like the rest of us. As her financial advisor says of her, “they broke the mold with that one.”
In a display of trendy female agency (a word Frances would dislike, as I do), she’s determined to play it her way. In a sense she’s an artist, a stand-in for her creators as she writes the fated script for her own life. When Frances first visited Paris on her honeymoon she intuited that it would mark her exit. A pervasive sadness and sense of loss planes over the film’s hijinks and whimsy. With its flouting of expectations and fluid shifts of tone and mood, French Exit offers a set of pleasures all its own.
Erica Abeel is a novelist, film and cultural critic, and former professor at CUNY. Her most recent novel Wild Girls, about three women rebels of the ’50s, was an Oprah Magazine pick. Her journalism has appeared in the New York Times, Indiewire, and other major sites and national publications. A former dancer, when not writing she’s in a Pilates class or at the barre. Her new novel, The Commune, will be published by Adelaide Books in September 2021.