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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

French Exit

Michelle Pfeiffer is magnificent and magnetic in this comedy about a broke Manhattan socialite's chaotic move to Paris.
By Sarah Ward
March 18, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
March 18, 2021
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"My plan was to die before the money ran out, but I kept and keep not dying — and here I am." When asked about her strategy as she faces financial ruin, that's Manhattan socialite Frances Price's (Michelle Pfeiffer, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) frank response. Her fortune has dwindled, the banks are about to repossess everything she owns and she doesn't know what her now-precarious future holds; however, she's most annoyed about having to answer her financial advisor's exasperated questions. Conveying Frances' reply with little else but spikiness otherwise, Pfeiffer turns this early French Exit scene into a deadpan masterclass. The character's candour, irritation and sharp edges are all personality traits, rather than specific reactions to her current predicament, and Pfeiffer makes it clear that she'd still be spitting out acerbic retorts with the same poker face if Frances had been queried about absolutely anything else. She frequently does just that afterwards, in fact, and she's a caustic delight in this wry exploration of a familiar topic: weathering life's many disappointments.

Widowed for a decade, and happy to keep cultivating an eccentric reputation as the years go on, Frances hasn't dedicated even a second to tangibly preparing for her present lack of funds. That said, she soon has another plan. Surreptitiously selling off her belongings as her accountant advises — and viciously haggling over commission rates in the process — she rustles up what cash she can and absconds to Paris, where a friend's empty apartment awaits rent-free. There, she reverts to her old approach. Once her remaining money has been frittered away on wine, coffee, and oversized tips to anyone and everyone, she doesn't see the point of going on. But her dysfunctionally codependent relationship with her twentysomething son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges, Waves), his on-and-off romance with his secret fiancée Susan (Imogen Poots, Black Christmas), and a new friendship with the lonely and besotted Madame Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey, Dead to Me) all add unexpected chaos to Frances' scheme, as does a cruise ship fortune teller (Danielle Macdonald, Unbelievable) and a runaway cat who just might be her reincarnated husband.

French Exit doesn't watch on as Frances tries to live a modest life and adjust her extravagant ways. It doesn't follow the unapologetically venomous woman as she learns to reassess her choices and attitude, either. Rather, it unfurls a keenly observed character study that's wrapped up in an oddball comedy — and while mining the loss of extreme wealth for chuckles has served Schitt's Creek well, too, French Exit proves as distinctive as its protagonist. It's a film about a woman called Frances who was once married to Franklin, owns a cat called Small Frank and relocates to France, after all. She leaves suddenly and without informing New York high society of her departure, of course, as the movie's title suggests. That's the type of humour pulsating through this light yet still probing picture, as directed with a fluid touch by Azazel Jacobs (The Lovers), and scripted by author Patrick deWitt from his own 2018 novel. Indeed, the fact that Frances' son isn't called Frankie, and that no one called Fran also pops up, is actually disappointing once French Exit establishes its absurdist wavelength.

A haunted sensation hovers over this portrait of privilege undone, though, and not just because of Small Frank's possible backstory. Casting Pfeiffer is the movie's best choice, and must've been far too delicious to pass up — seeing the former Catwoman chase a mouser around Paris is amusing, naturally — but it's easy to see how French Exit could've and probably would've crumbled without her. Finding the perfect person for a part that no one else would've done justice can do that. This film belongs to its equally slinky and scathing star, who adds another commanding performance to a resume filled with them, but she's the overwhelming reason that Frances' wounding one-liners, larger-than-life demeanour and all-round cattishness strike a chord. Equally icy and vulnerable even when she's playing for laughs, she also ensures that Frances never feels like a caricature, or as if she has simply stepped out of a Wes Anderson or Noah Baumbach picture. (In its pithy dialogue and idiosyncratic family dynamics, French Exit overtly resembles both The Royal Tenenbaums and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), and even offers a gender-flipped accompaniment to Sofia Coppola's On the Rocks as well).

Thankfully, Pfeiffer is truly magnificent and magnetic, and the film's embrace of farce is just as compelling. The latter is refreshing, too, ignoring the usual poignant life lessons, and instead embracing the mess and mania Frances seems to cultivate every time she opens her mouth. Jacobs and deWitt haven't starved their feature of canny insights, especially in Pfeiffer's barbed words. A trace of unshakeable melancholy lingers over every sentence as her character tries to do what everyone must: figure out how to go on. But, paired with a lively pace, scenic but never gratuitously touristy Parisian cinematography, and a willingness to get silly and whimsical, French Exit bubbles rather than wallows — and while it doesn't quite find its mark consistently enough, it's a gem whenever it does.

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