Even if it didn’t end with a killer punchline, it’s amusing to think there would be any scenario in which Frances Price (Michelle Pfeiffer) didn’t demand your attention in “French Exit,” though the unimaginable happens when she attempts to get a check from a waiter who would rather take his smoke break. She’s just arrived in Paris with her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) and not about to be ignored, having already been uprooted from a cushy lifestyle in New York where the inheritance left over from her dead husband had run dry, leaving her to take up a friend’s generous offer to figure things out in her apartment across the pond. The waiter may afford himself a drag on the cigarette before Frances locks eyes with him, but finds that he’s the one going up in flames soon enough.
You can’t take your eyes off Frances thanks to a dazzling turn by Pfeiffer, weaponizing every word as a grand dame having trouble acclimating to a lesser quality of life than what she’s become accustomed to in Patrick DeWitt’s wickedly funny adaptation of his own novel. But “French Exit” becomes so much more under the direction of Azazel Jacobs, who no doubt was intrigued with an exploration of codependent relationships that dates back to his 2008 breakthrough “Momma’s Man,” recruiting his real-life parents Ken and Flo Jacobs to take their son (played by Matt Boren) back into the nest when he can no longer handle being around his own wife and child. In the years since, whether it’s been best friends Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells in the HBO series “Doll and Em” or more recently “The Lovers,” in which the director made the most of the tantalizing premise of a married couple that falls back in love with each other when their affairs went bad, Jacobs has honed in on the give-and-take of long-term relationships, revealing the needs of those who least appear to have any while finding unexpected ways for them to be satisfied.
Frances would seem not to want for anything, coldly informing a fellow ex-pat (Valerie Mahaffey) looking for friends that any new relationships at this point in her life would be a burden, but in fact, she hopes the best for her son, who is too timid to tell her that before arriving in Paris he had already made plans to move there with his fiancee (Imogen Poots). Neither knows exactly how to best talk to one another, owing to the strangeness of the dozen years after the patriarch’s death in which the details were rarely discussed, yet the two have relied upon each other in the years since if not for money, for company when their riches have isolated them from having to engage much with the outside world. As Frances is apt to tell anyone who will listen, she’s content to die when the money runs out, and with her propensity to throw obscene amounts of money at anyone that can help put a smile on her face, having no idea what value things have besides what she can place on them herself, that time is coming sooner than later, though she’s intent on setting up Malcolm for life in ways that extend beyond financial comfort.
While there’s always been a slightly surreal comic tone in his work, Jacobs seemed to fully find his groove quite literally on “The Lovers” where an extravagant score opened up the feelings bursting inside his characters that they were unable to publicly express themselves, and faced with conveying the casual absurdity of “The Sisters Brothers” author’s work, he returns to that specific idea here, enlisting DeWitt’s younger brother Nick for the often mischievous and heartswelling musical accompaniment, and with the deceptively subdued yet colorful work of cinematographer Tobias Datum, production designer Jean-Andre Carriere and costume designer Jane Petrie create a world in which a talking cat imbued with the spirit of Frances’ dead husband Frank (voiced by Tracy Letts) doesn’t seem all that odd. Gradually bringing together a collection of strays inside Frances’ borrowed apartment, including both the fortune teller (Danielle MacDonald) able to summon Frank’s spirit and the private investigator tasked with tracking her down (Isaac de Bankole), the fuller the rooms become in the film, the more its artifice falls away to show its considerable heart. “French Exit” may be all about going out in style, but its great substance is what shines through brilliantly.
“French Exit” will screen virtually at the New York Film Festival on October 10th virtually beginning at 5 pm PST/8 pm EST in a four-hour window. Sony Classics will release the film on February 21st, 2021.