Based on the novel of the same name by Patrick deWitt (who also wrote the screenplay), French Exit follows Frances Price (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges). They have been living off of the inheritance left by her late husband Franklin, but after twelve years of luxurious living, the money has run out. With little else left for them, they, along with their cat Small Frank (who is also the reincarnated spirit of Frances’ husband), move from New York to live in a friend’s apartment in Paris, where Frances plans to spend the last days of her life.
Directed by Azazel Jacobs, French Exit premiered at the 2020 New York Film Festival and saw a limited release in New York and Los Angeles on February 12th before its full release across the States on April 2nd. The film is an intriguing cinematic experience. From a production perspective, it’s gorgeously shot, absolutely stunning and does the best it can to make each scene as visually appealing as possible, despite the remarkably low budget. However, as far as the story is concerned, it feels like it’s lacking something. The potential for a great movie is there, however, it’s also a very unusual film and can feel like a slog to get through at certain points, especially since the film’s running time is just under two hours.
The writing very often deviates between being funny and charming to just downright bizarre. There are moments when the dialogue feels like something that may seem at home in the pages of a book but doesn’t necessarily translate well on screen. While the narrative does occasionally feel compelling, there are other times where it just falls a bit flat. Also, the element of the cat actually being Franklin’s spirit is initially funny, but as the film goes on, it’s a plot point that becomes underdeveloped.
This mixed appeal also applies to the casting. Michelle Pfeiffer brings gravitas to her role and is undoubtedly the best part of this film – the scene where she sets a fire in a French café is a personal highlight. However, she overshadows the rest of the cast. Perhaps this is in some ways affected by how much a heavyweight she is within the cinema industry, but it also comes down to the performances. When compared alongside Lucas Hedges’ character – who she shares much of her screen time with – she fits easily into her role as this complex woman who is used to a life of luxury, while he seems mechanical at times. In contrast to Pfeiffer, Hedges’ performance is underwhelming.
The rest of the cast perform their roles adequately. It was nice to see Danielle MacDonald in something other than Bird Box or Dumplin’. Imogen Poots was unrecognizable in her role as Malcolm’s fiancé, though her character didn’t really bring much to the story, but the one who stood out the most alongside Pfeiffer was Valerie Mahaffey as Madame Reynaud. In a cast full of people with varying degrees of strangeness, hers was a truly unique performance, coming off as this unusual yet optimistic and happy woman.
French Exit is presented as a surreal comedy, and the oddity of the cast is so poignant that it feels hilarious when it’s addressed towards the end of the film. While it’s by no means outstanding – and it can at times feel a bit stereotypical of soundtracks for films set in Paris – the music composed by Nick deWitt is in itself a pleasant experience. Though it doesn’t make you want to go out and look for the film’s soundtrack, it’s subtly enjoyable in the film’s quieter moments where there’s no dialogue.
However, if it wasn’t for Michelle Pfeiffer carrying the weight of the film on her shoulders, French Exit would sadly be largely forgettable. Though the film is well put together, the rest of the performances range from good to unworthy of mention. Frances exploring the twilight years of her life is the only really entertaining aspect of this film. The mother and son relationship has been done so much better in other projects and having Paris as a setting doesn’t really add much to the plot – it could have easily just been set in any other city in the globe, and it would have changed very little about the film. If you’re a fan of Pfeiffer or low budget/ film festival movies, give this a go. Otherwise, you might as well give this movie its own exit.
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A film that feels more like an experimental film than a surreal comedy, French Exit is still worth watching for Michelle Pfieffer’s performance and its moments of beauty.
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