I don’t know about you but not being able to see my mother in person in over a year thanks to the pandemic has made me especially susceptible to sentimental stories about mother-son relationships. And French Exit, hinging as it does upon a doozy of one, got me that way but good. From the second Michelle Pfeiffer swans in — she does a lot of swanning in French Exit, to as always stunning effect — to whisk her son out of boarding school and away to another life, her life, I suddenly wanted to call my own mom real bad. Sometimes we need our parents, even if we’re entirely aware that they can’t rescue themselves, to make a show of saving us a little, and French Exit makes some sweet sad poetry of that emotional symbiosis.
Based on screenwriter Patrick DeWitt’s 2018 novel, French Exit has Pfeiffer playing fading and notorious Manhattan rich-lady Frances Price, whose husband dropped dead under mysterious circumstances, making her the dangerous source of societal whispers. She’s been running on fumes ever since — she once had her own money but that got swallowed up by his and the lot of it’s not going to last forever. Indeed, forever’s just come to collect when the film starts.
Price is the sort of woman who tells her accountant, when he asks her what plans she’s made for this inevitable day of financial doom he’s been warning her of for years, that her plans consisted of exactly one thing: dying before that day. And yet she never did quite get around to that either. Thankfully he gives her an exit — sell all your stuff and run — and her best friend gives her a place to exit to — an unused apartment in Paris — and voila, we have the film’s title. There’s just the complication of the kid with his own life and dreams to deal, or more likely not, with…
That kid is called Malcolm and he’s played by Lucas Hedges under a swoop of delicate auburn hair, so you’re already halfway to loving him the second he shows up. Likewise he’s got a fiancé and she’s played by Imogen Poots and the love-chain continues on with ease — French Exit makes up a lot of fast ground by casting people we feel warm for from frame one, which is good because the movie and its characters ask a lot of us, tonally speaking. It swerves from frantic farce to suicide-dramedy to black magic, from sentiment to the darkest of snark, sometimes sentence to sentence.
It starts a little wobbly. Or maybe it just takes some time to situate oneself? Either way, there’s the occasional mouthful of arch dialogue that gets caught in the throat, and the film has moments that are reminiscent of Juno’s worst quirk-for-quirk’s-sake, home-skillet sensations. A punchline or two remain desperately out of reach. There’s a lurch towards Wes-Anderson-Land that doesn’t. But once the film lets its more than fine actors sit and be fine with one another, French Exit has long lovely passages of magic.
Michelle Pfeiffer gives a performance for the ages and is, always and forever, a goddess, and French Exit is as good a showcase for her particular movie-star by way of seriously accomplished actress talents as we’ve had in maybe decades. What a gift, just to watch her work, and director Azazel Jacobs knows it. There are nods to her former iconic moments — of course the cat stuff (oh did I not mention her dead husband has been reincarnated as a cat voiced by Tracy Letts?), but I was especially giddied by the dishwashing scene that feels dropped right in out of Married to the Mob.
But Frances is still something new from her, a new star in her limitless skies, and she sparkles. Nobody can deliver such righteous withering contempt with a frozen stare as she, but Frances — even she notes the strangeness of it — is also awash in sentimentality, and it’s that soft edge, that sweetness that Pfeiffer allows in, blazing up the place, that finally makes French Exit fly. Then again… maybe I was just missing my Mom. But for two hours, having Michelle Pfeiffer storm into the boarding school that is life to take us all on an adventure, it’s a trip I’d take again, even knowing the sad swerves, in a second.
This review is from the 58th New York Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics will release French Exit on February 12, 2021.