In this ridiculously long – some might say “endless” – Oscar season, French Exit was originally positioned as a sure-fire Best Actress vehicle for Michelle Pfeiffer, a standout role that could potentially deliver an Oscar win to the three-time past nominee. As the COVID-impacted release calendar started to fill, however, the film – and thus, the performance – got lost in the shuffle. Now free from the awards machine, judging on the evidence of the film itself, one must wonder if even the most perfect release slot would’ve generated enough fervent love to deliver a sure-fire Oscar win for performance that is quite slippery, in a film that is very difficult to define.
Pfeiffer is terrific, make no mistake. As aging NYC socialite Frances Price, who as the film begins is confronted with the news that her fortune is dwindling rapidly and her assets will soon be liquidated, Pfeiffer exudes a complex muddle of high-society naivete and a sort of carefree nihilism. “My plan was to die before the money ran out,” she tells her financial advisor, “But I kept and keep not dying, so, here I am.” The film plays out with that same beguiling attitude, circling around themes of death, loneliness, and fractured familial alliances in such detached bemusement that it’s hard to determine if the character is an extension of the film or if the film is an extension of the character. The natural screenwriter’s assumption would be the latter, though the balance is trickier in French Exit, which is almost as enamored with itself as its central character.
That awkward balance is difficult to define as the film unfolds, since its focus casually lapses from scene to scene. Initially, this is a study of the relationship between Frances and her son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), who resided at a prestigious boarding school until age 12, when Frances whisked him away. It’s not clear to what extent his formal education was completed, or precisely what life was like in the intervening years, but at this point mother and son seem inexorably connected to such a degree that neither seems able to function without the other. That dynamic would be intriguing to explore more fully than writer Patrick DeWitt and director Azazel Jacobs seem willing to do. DeWitt also authored the book on which his screenplay is based, and one assumes more detailed pathos could be mined in that format. The film, however, is only interested in the mother-son relationship as one tangent in its tapestry of oddities.
Those oddities reveal themselves when Frances decides to cash in all her remaining possessions and use the money to travel to Paris with Malcolm, staying at a friend’s apartment and spending their remaining dollars with the sort of excessive generosity that will soon leave them penniless. It’s the sort of willful self-sabotage that underscores the loneliness that Frances and Malcolm have cultivated over time – they only had money to keep themselves company, all the while knowing it would eventually abandon them. But once in Paris, their insularity is challenged by an increasing number of outside intruders. Among them are Madame Reynard (Valerie Mahaffy), a widowed acquaintance desperate for attention; Julius (Isaach De Bankole), a private investigator Frances hires to find her missing cat; and Madeleine (Danielle Macdonald), a psychic who is able to communicate with the spirit of Frances’ dead husband. Oh, and that spirit lives within the cat – so, ya know, everything ties together.
It sounds messy, though it’s a mess-by-design – these characters are drawn together in a manner of whimsy similar to a Wes Anderson film, though lacking the archness of style to match its attitude. French Exit exhibits a quick wit juxtaposed against a leaden backdrop, as if the style sabotages the script. That’s not surprising coming from Jacobs (The Lovers), who as a director has a tendency to handle light material with a heavy hand. With French Exit, he seems closer to achieving a synthesis – there’s an intriguing darkness to the themes even if they’re never fully realized, an odd infectiousness to the characters though they remain unfocused. Frances is the most fascinating creation, and the ennui Pfeiffer radiates is the closest the film comes to establishing its worldview. Like Frances, French Exit is bizarrely magnetic, though afterward you’re left wondering what you’ve just experienced.