Azazel Jacobs’ follow-up to his 2017 indie The Lovers tends to play like an extended Arrested Development episode. That’s the opposite of a bad thing. The surreal capers of French Exit poke fun at the inaccessible culture of the wealthy elite along with the familial dysfunction and sociopathic tendencies, pairing a mother-son combo that would threaten to give Lucille and Buster Bluth a run for their money (no pun intended). It also dabbles in our latent and inescapable cultural fixation on, among many things, death and classism, in the story of a broke socialite with homicidal fantasies, her devoted adult son, and their cat — who is the reincarnation of the widow’s dead husband. Having reached her autumn years and the end of her fortune, the widow ponders what to do with the remainder of her life and her money, in a dry, funny film that both skewers the rich and contemplates human mortality.
The black comedy – adapted from the novel of the same name by the novel’s author, Patrick DeWitt – is fronted by Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges as Frances and Malcolm Price. The mother and son embark on what Frances believes to be a one-way trip to Paris. It’s a final hurrah of sorts, a last dance before Frances is forced to take off her heels and trade them in for a pair of penny loafers, having recently found herself on the precipice of bankruptcy and ideating suicide in the wake of the discovery. Her dead husband’s vast wealth has been run dry by her devotion to her own opulence, and she drew infamy in Manhattan from discovering her husband’s body and leaving it to go skiing for a weekend. Irked by this impending trip is Malcolm’s girlfriend, Susan (Imogen Poots), who Malcolm had been planning on proposing to. She feels this of many acts of unwarranted commitment to his mother – who, Susan points out, did not decide to take responsibility and enter his life until he was 12 years old – is the straw that’s broken the camel’s back in their relationship.
Having sold the remainder of her possessions and with Small Frank in tow, Frances and Malcolm set sail aboard a cruise ship headed for Paris. There, they meet the cruise ship’s acting fortune teller, Madeleine (Danielle Macdonald), who can sense peoples’ impending deaths and has a bizarre psychic connection with Small Frank; and who Malcolm sleeps with. Frances disapproves of her son’s sexual liaison with a “witch,” although Frances will ultimately need Madeleine’s help later on in locating Small Frank lost in the city of Paris. In the meantime, Frances and Malcolm spend their lazy days condescending the homeless, terrifying restaurant waiters, and being entertained by the eccentric Madame Renard (Valerie Mahaffey), a previous admirer of Frances and her local Manhattan fame, now taking the opportunity to court Frances’s friendship. In her travels, Frances seems torn between shedding the façade of her cold wealth and desperately maintaining it, as she and Malcolm find themselves entertaining a gaggle of friends and new acquaintances in Frances’s friend’s Parisian apartment where they are staying.
The previously described “stealth absurdism” of DeWitt’s novel is comfortably maintained in the film adaptation, hinged on matter-of-fact dialogue far less idiosyncratic than that of a Wes Anderson film and which will, thus, make you unsure whether the movie is sustained by lunacy or whether you’re the one going slowly insane. Frances calmly describes setting buildings on fire if she does not get her way, and it might take one a moment to realise that she’s being absolutely serious. At one point, she descends into a peaceful, internal monologue about the penises she’s happened to see while in Paris. Michelle Pfeiffer (no stranger to camp) utterly embraces the role of Frances. Irritatingly posh, vain, comically maniacal and cold, Frances plays out for most of the film like a cartoon caricature of a bourgeoise tart – or a close relative of Jessica Walters as Lucille Bluth. Lucas Hedges’ delivery of her mostly deadpan son neither impresses nor disappoints, while Valerie Mahaffey as the oddball Madame Renard cloying desperately to impress Frances and maintain her friendship is one of the standout pleasures of the film.
There are some things that don’t quite work, however, like Frances’s relationship with her Parisian apartment-lending friend Joan (Susan Coyne), briefly established towards the beginning of the film then presented like an unwavering pillar of Frances’s life when Joan reappears much later on. Overall, the resolution of the film feels far less confident than the first chunk, as the story becomes far more saccharine and packs less of a satirical punch. Kept at a purposeful distance from Frances for the majority of the film, the final act suddenly asks us to fully empathise with her as she contemplates what her life is worth without any money, and Malcolm tries to fully understand his own complicated relationship to her. Still, French Exit is a surrealist delight, towing an ideological line between existentialism and nihilism that ultimately finds a way to remain buoyant. We are forced to journey through the film through the eyes of a nasty misanthrope, whose magnetism does nothing if not enchant, trailed by a throng of colourful, quirky characters who can’t seem to detach themselves either. And maybe that’s part of the point: that despite the horrific excess belonging to those of the upper crust, we all find it a bit hard to look away.
French Exit screened as part of the virtual edition of New York Film Festival 2020
by Brianna Zigler
Brianna is a graduate in Film-Video and Writing from Penn State University with big plans and not a lot of planning. She loves horror, absurdism, Twin Peaks, is a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and currently has almost 250 movies in her watchlist. Her favorite films are What We Do in the Shadows, A Serious Man, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Swiss Army Man, and Suspiria. You can follow her on Twitter @briannazigs