January 25, 2022

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

‘French Exit’ review: Michelle Pfeiffer beguiles

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

The misadventures of the eccentrically wealthy may not exactly fit the mood right now, but the new “French Exit” is so genuine in its mix of arch and earnest, idiosyncrasy and earthiness that it creates a space all for itself.

Directed by Azazel Jacobs from Patrick DeWitt‘s adaptation of his own 2018 novel, the movie is rife with melancholy and whimsy, existing in a hermetically sealed world of privilege that everyday reality only occasionally punctures. Yet the movie still manages to create an emotional tug, an overcast feeling of loss, that makes it difficult to dismiss.

Frances Price (Michelle Pfeiffer) has nearly exhausted the fortune of her late husband, Franklin (Tracy Letts), the unusual circumstances of his passing having made her something of a social outcast. Her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) is torn between pathological loyalty to his mother and the anxieties of making a life of his own, wearing out the fraying patience of his fiancée (Imogen Poots). And then there is the family cat, Small Frank, within whom the spirit of Franklin seems to reside.

Frances drags Malcolm to Paris via cruise ship with an oversize handbag stuffed with all the cash they have and an open-ended invitation to stay in a friend’s apartment. Except Frances seems to be plotting something, even if that something is just a vague idea to simply die when the money runs out. And so she keeps spending, apparently planning the French exit of the title to leave without saying goodbye.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Frances Price in ‘French Exit.’

(Lou Scamble / Sony Pictures Classics)

The movie comes alive once they get to Paris, as Frances and Malcolm pick up people around them like strays — a lonely widow, a private detective, a cruise ship psychic and others — all tasked with finding the lost cat (and the lost soul trapped inside it), missing from the Paris apartment. The supporting cast of Valerie Mahaffey, Isaach de Bankolé, Danielle Macdonald and Poots all do well in capturing the strange world of the movie while also giving it an emotional grounding.

In one of the film’s earliest scenes, as Frances begins to explain to Malcolm that they have become insolvent, Pfeiffer is in a darkened kitchen ominously and absent-mindedly sharpening a knife. The movie really belongs to the steely character of Frances and Pfeiffer’s delicately beguiling performance as a woman pushing the world away. As she has grown older, slipping in and out of the spotlight at her discretion, Pfeiffer has become a more enigmatic performer, capable of the combination of glamour and grit that made her a star, but with added underpinnings of sadness and the unexpected, of a life lived.

For a woman concerned that her life has amounted to nothing, that she has done nothing, Frances’ final act is to assemble a makeshift alternate family around her son, a bustling menagerie of oddballs to keep him occupied and give him direction. The search for the lost cat, for meaning and love in a dreary, stifling world, was not for nothing after all. The cat finds her.

‘French Exit’

Rated: R, for language and sexual references

Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes

Playing: starts Feb. 12, Vineland Drive-In, City of Industry; and in limited release where theaters are open