In French Exit, fantasies of death and all-consuming flame occupy the mind of Frances (Michelle Pfeiffer), a Manhattan-based widow and mother-of-one with a penchant for the macabre.
Sans spoilers, you’d be forgiven for thinking Frances were a witch, be it her endless array of fashionable coats, bright auburn hair, and ability to disarm with a glance (an effort she demonstrates as naturally as blinking).
This sense of oddness, the likes which director Azazel Jacobs embraces with a chokehold grip – albeit somewhat forcefully – is peppered throughout French Exit, and follows Frances and her pliant son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges, who blurs more-and-more into Steve Zahn with every film), as they experience a change-up from their lavish Manhattan lifestyle. Accustomed to extravagant parties, caretakers, and fabulous households bound in majestic timber, they find themselves evicted into the comparably more quaint surrounding of a Parisian loft.
Accompanying them is a motley crew of fellow oddballs, including aloof fortune teller Madeleine (Aussie Danielle Macdonald); former Manhattan socialite and number-one admirer of Frances Madame Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey, giving new meaning to having a chilling secret); and Little Frank, the family cat with his own offbeat history. All of these formidable beings (cat included), coupled with those from Frances’ past (roles played by Imogen Poots, Susan Coyne, and Daniel Di Tomasso), render as compatible with screenwriter Patrick deWitt’s vision of an emotionally sterile-yet-biting comedy. DeWitt holds all punches till they punctuate with maximum, heart-crushing effect; he balances the neglect of Malcolm’s upbringing – the tremors of this impacting his relationships into adulthood – and runs it in tandem with Frances’ mental downfall.
Jacobs, whose previous work includes relationship comedy The Lovers, doesn’t place pity upon Frances and Malcolm. As Frances narrows the financial gutter, poverty becomes an interest of hers, as seen in her series of interactions with people who would traditionally fall outside of her Manhattan bubble. The mighty may have fallen, but in the case of Frances, her downwards mobility is graced by a series of cushioned landings that are afforded to her by her wealth and privilege.
For Pfeiffer, French Exit serves as her comeback spectacular (and yet another supernatural outing involving her appreciation of cats). Her piercing performance as Frances, whose immense financial and personal loss generates most of the film’s hysteria, overcomes any semblance of initially presented haughtiness. Her cutting comments are played as laughs and represent deeper cries for help. The effect burgeons to create a well-dimensioned character that, despite her damage (a motif Jacobs creatively expresses through the depletion of cash) and affinity for sharp objects (audience nerves literally teetering on a knife’s edge), expresses profound care for the people in her life. All of this without raising her voice past room temperature.
Through Pfeiffer, Jacobs composes a sombre deadpan dramedy that explores the manner we hold onto grief and the insecurities of wealth. French Exit as humorous as it is crushing – as if the filmmakers envisioned the darkest moment of a Wes Anderson film and stretched it into a 110-minute film.