“A particular balance between the script’s silly and downbeat elements is needed for the film’s myriad of ideas to combine – and more often than not, it comes up short.”
by Ken Bakely
From the start, it’s abundantly clear that Azazel Jacobs’s French Exit wants to be about a lot. Its mannered dialogue and occasional forays into fantasy are pitted against a deliberately droll execution, with this contrast emphasizing each individual element. The plot is absurd in a deadpan, cockeyed kind of way, concerning Frances Price (Michelle Pfeiffer), an idle and jaded woman in Manhattan whose considerable inheritance assumed after her husband’s death has dried up. She has no plans for what to do next – she plainly explains that she was simply hoping she would die before the money ran out. Unable to think of anything else to do, she suddenly decides to take her dour, twentysomething son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) and move to Paris, where she has resolved to spend whatever she has left. The underlying intent or endgame in this move is not entirely clear from the start, but the film is more about the journey there – a gaudy cruise, naturally – and the mix of eccentric and/or bewildered characters that they meet both along the way and at their destination. It’s a deliberately thorny setup, adorned with deliberately off-putting personas, uneasy situations, and unexplained peculiarities. While there’s certainly nothing inherently misguided about this idea, a particular balance between the script’s silly and downbeat elements is needed for the film’s myriad of ideas to combine – and more often than not, it comes up short.
Jacobs, directing from a screenplay by Patrick DeWitt (adapting his novel of the same name), careens somewhat aimlessly between all of the movie’s disparate elements. In one moment, muted cringe comedy abounds when Frances converses with the widowed Madame Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey); she does not, for instance, bother to stifle her laugh when she learns Monsieur Reynard’s peculiar cause of death (choking on a bite of lamb). In another moment, we learn of Frances’ earnest belief that her own late husband’s soul lives on in her pet cat, and that this is a reasonable thing to believe, because it is entirely true. French Exit, living in the space of its strange characters and even stranger situations, struggles to realize itself into something more concrete, perhaps because the narrative is deliberately scattered. For much of its runtime, it’s far more akin to a survey of its world. Flashbacks are woven throughout, themes are inconsistently and hazily pointed towards, and characterization is deliberately sketched around exaggerated traits. There are certainly times when this can amount to a particularly funny or observant sequence, but it doesn’t help that the script seems to deliberately work against such firm takeaways.
When the movie does succeed, it’s in no small part due to the extraordinary cast, in particular Pfeiffer in the lead role. Frances is a fascinating character – she’s someone whose external image boils over with cynicism, exasperation, and old-fashioned wealthy detachment, but who must necessarily be played along lines that dig deeper than these signals. Pfeiffer understands this, leaning into the contradictions of Frances and the cloudy obstructions that keep too much from being given away, yet she takes care to tee up the deeper mysteries and complications that peek through. Then there is the deceptively stoic Malcolm, whose quiet demeanor still hides something more: Hedges is good at deftly filling in the blanks between what we know of the character’s background and how he winds up here, as his mother’s silent companion. There are also commendable supporting actors, who make the most out of what could have come off as sloppily-drawn caricatures. (Particular praise is due for the comic turns of Mahaffey’s Mme. Reynard, and for Danielle Macdonald as Madeleine, a medium who is introduced aboard Frances and Malcolm’s hysterically sour cruise.) French Exit gets some part of the way to succeeding, but ultimately, it can’t get there in the end, thanks largely to a script that works in isolated bursts but won’t cohere – or really communicate with itself at all. The adventure is admirable in its ambition; it’s often entertaining, or at least difficult to tear oneself away from. But it becomes clear early on that there’s little connective tissue here – by design, at that – and though you could hardly ask for a better cast, the movie feels frustratingly incomplete, and makes sure you never forget it.