Reviewed by Peter Fox
Directed by AZAZEL JACOBS Written by PATRICK DEWITT
Starring MICHELLE PFEIFFER as Frances Price LUCAS HEDGES as Malcolm Price VALERIE MAHAFFEY as Mme Reynard IMOGEN POOTS as Susan
A Sony Pictures Classics Release, Rated R, 113 minutes.
French Exit is a masterfully executed film and offers an intimate look at what happens when a wealthy woman, Frances Price, whom Michelle Pfeiffer brilliantly portrays, faces financial ruin. Directed by Azazel Jacobs and written by Patrick de Witt, this dark comedy is both inventive and poignant. It offers an intimate look at the inevitability of default to one’s natural identity when the means to a high utility level, acquired through marriage, is no longer available. When the consequences become unbearable, Frances must choose between life or death.
The story begins when Frances arrives unexpectedly at a high-end prep school to reclaim her 12-year-old son, Malcolm, portrayed as an adult by Lucas Hedges. Her husband has died, and she has inherited a massive fortune, including cash, priceless art, and a Park Avenue home in New York City. Flash forward 15 years, where we learn from Frances’s advisor that the fortune is now gone, in large part to her careless spending habits. When Frances requests the money she brought to the marriage, the advisor reveals that the amount was minuscule and long ago. In the meantime, Malcolm is indecisive about his engagement with Susan, played by Imogen Poots. After a lunch meeting with her best friend Joan (Susan Coyne), Frances accepts her offer to move to Paris to live in her apartment. Francis, Malcolm, and their black cat, “Small Frank”-named after her late husband, leave the heartbroken Susan and New York for a passage on the Cunard line to Europe to settle in the Paris apartment owned by Joan.
While on board the ocean liner, Malcolm enters the bar and meets Madeline (Danielle MacDonald), who works on the ship as a psychic reader. She and Malcolm share a few drinks and a roll in the hay, much to the chagrin of Frances. While at the customs counter after they arrive, Madeline forges a connection with the black cat before leaving them. At their new apartment in Paris, Francis removes her smuggled cat and 15 stacks of cash, worth a total of 1.5 million Euros. She neatly places the money on a shelf in the closet, and as the story moves on, the stacks are like a ticking clock, winding down to a zero hour and its inevitable consequences.
Shortly after settling in, Francis receives an invitation to meet an old friend from New York living in Paris, Mademoiselle Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey). Eccentric but affable, Reynard has prepared dinner and drinks but receives haughty condescension from Frances, whose dialog cuts to the quick for most of the film. There are plenty of gags along the way. When Mme. Reynard excuses herself for a moment, Malcolm discovers a frozen dildo in the kitchen freezer. When he returns to the living room and tells Frances, she asks: “Why would you want it cold?” Malcolm replies: “That’s the mystery.”
Not a single cell phone or computer appears in the film, but the automobiles, costumes, and remaining art direction are present-day and give the film a timelessness. After a bike ride, Malcolm stops at a payphone to call Susan in New York and discovers she is now engaged to a new boyfriend, Tom (Daniel Di Tomasso). When he returns to the apartment, he discovers that Small Frank has bitten and injured Frances. As he bandages her wound, the cat runs out into the Paris night.
After this moment, the film’s central question is brought forth in dialogue spoken by Mme. Reynard. In a private chat with Malcolm, she asks him: “Do you ever feel as though you’ve had adulthood thrust upon you at too young an age, and you’re still essentially a child, mimicking the behaviors of the grown-ups all around you so they won’t uncover the meager contents of your heart?” Reynard could as well have directed this question to Frances, only on the subject of social privilege. Just substitute the word Privilege for Adulthood, and in this sense, the question speaks to Frances’ parvenu nature; a working-class woman who has married into wealth but must now face the naked truth that she is hopelessly on the way back down the societal and economic ladder to her place of origin and humble beginnings. As the years of her immersion in the ruling class have afforded her the look, vernacular, and mannerisms of someone “to the Manor born,” she is woefully unprepared for the impending loss of the resources required to sustain her gluttonous existence and counterfeit identity. Psychologically and emotionally, she is lost, fearful, and against the wall. Pfieffer’s performance is convincing and also sympathetic. We feel her hopelessness and desire to make things better, not only for herself but for Malcolm. Her ordinary world is quickly slipping away, but she doesn’t know what to do about it. Before Malcolm can answer Mme Reynard’s pointed question, Frances bursts back into frame and bellows: “That witch you fucked on the boat on the way over. She understood him, didn’t she? Why can’t we ask her where he is?”
A private investigator, Julius (Issach De Bankole), is summoned, and he quickly returns with Madeline. Shortly after that, Susan arrives in Paris with Tom, her objective being to decide whom to marry. With the apartment filled with all of these various characters, the comedic peak of the film unfolds as Madeline conducts a seance to locate and communicate with Small Frank, the cat. In the scene, Malcolm confronts Frank’s spirit on abandoning him as a young boy, bringing Frances closer to him.
A quick look inside the closet reveals that the stacks of money are nearly gone, resulting from Frances’s inability to handle her finances responsibly. At the park across the street from her apartment, she gives a homeless man €300,000. Then, she sits at an outdoor cafe and writes a note to her friend Joan, informing her that she will commit suicide. She leaves a €100 tip for the waiter, who mails the message to Joan.
Francis summons Madeline to conjure Frank for one last conversation but not to ask him to come home. Instead, she clears her slate with him regarding Malcolm, their marriage, and their ultimate fate.
Aside from one technical glitch in the film (I won’t give it away, but here’s a hint: keep an eye on the money), this is a near-flawless film, with Michelle Pfeiffer serving up one of the best performances of her career. Lucas Hedges is in equal parts soft, vulnerable, and firm in his portrayal of Malcolm. The sleeper performance of French Exit comes from Valerie Mahaffey, who displays excellent range as Mademoiselle Reynard. French Exit is a delightful, funny, and also thought-provoking cinema. ☐