2021, R, 110 min. Directed by Azazel Jacobs. Starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges, Tracy Letts, Valerie Mahaffey, Susan Coyne, Imogen Poots, Danielle Macdonald.
REVIEWED By Jenny Nulf, Fri., April 2, 2021
The worst thing that can happen to a rich socialite is irrelevance. At least, that's how Frances Price (Pfeiffer) sees it, and here irrelevance means no more cash. That’s why when her bank tells her the money is gone, she decides to uproot herself, her son Malcom (Hedges), and her cat, Small Frank, to Paris to stay in a friend’s apartment, to hide away from the people who have come to hate her since her husband Frank died.
There’s nothing totally original about French Exit, and yet the subtleties of its charm permeate. Screenwriter Patrick DeWitt is smart in adapting his own novel, and never pretends to outwit and overwrite his own page-turner ambitions. It's a delicately wacky comedy decorated in fall foliage and damp sidewalks from overcast Parisian days. It’s like watching a cast of Wes Anderson characters on their day off, which is both a compliment in its restraint, and a yearning for something beyond its broad comforting appeal.
The film’s midpoint séance is French Exit at its best, where the little quirks finally pay off and the absurdist nature clicks. Frances, Malcom, and their guests don't bat an eye as Madeleine the Medium (MacDonald) attempts to summon Frank via candlelight. It’s a scene played straight, not overwritten with shocks, awes, or lengthy explanations as to how, and its lean approach into folly is where French Exit succeeds.
Yet there’s a warmth to the amount of people that find themselves staying in the apartment in which Frances is temporarily dwelling, and that kind of earnestness clashes with the film’s sense of zaniness. These are the characters you’ve learned to hate in films: the ones that are so rich that their out-of-touch tics should be frustrating, annoying. The blip of tenderness between these people is sweet, but feels too neat. Yet when Pfeiffer’s frivolous spending gets too much, or Hedges’ silence teeters towards deafening, a new character pops in and the dynamic is refreshed. Particularly, Valerie Mahaffey’s delightfully weird choices, like crawling across her couch in front of guests, drunk after two martinis, are the kinds of additions that keep the film magnetically alive.
French Exit is the kind of film that makes one yearn for a Sunday matinee. The performances are colorful, the setting is divine, and there’s nothing immediate about it. It’s a film you can easily fall into and out of, a breezy walk through the park. French Exit is simply an enchanting day at the movies.