Note: The writer of this review watched French Exit on a digital screener from home. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.
“Ah, to be young-ish and in love-ish,” sighs Frances (Michelle Pfeiffer) toward the beginning of French Exit. She’s mocking the romantic vacillation of her adult son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), but those qualifying suffixes aptly describe the movie itself, which isn’t so much absurdist as it is absurd-ish. That’s not meant as derogatory. Working from a screenplay by Patrick deWitt, who adapted his own 2018 novel, director Azazel Jacobs (Terri, The Lovers) has crafted a uniquely offbeat, almost stealthy comic tone, ideal for a story with a rather bleak (though not necessarily unhappy) ending. What’s more, the film keeps casually mutating throughout—a supernatural element emerges roughly halfway through, treated as quite ordinary by everyone on screen, and what seems for a long time to be a maternal two-hander eventually expands into a full-fledged, rowdy ensemble, with new characters showing up at the door even as someone attempts to catalogue those who are already present. It’s a restless portrait of a bizarrely aimless woman.
Frances is also a very wealthy woman, albeit not for long. A dozen years after the death of her husband (Tracy Letts, seen in one quick flashback and heard…well, we’ll get there), which she was arrested for failing to immediately report, she’s informed by her accountant that the bank technically owns everything she has left, and is about to collect. Rather than give up her extravagant lifestyle and get what would be her very first job, Frances accepts an invitation to move into a friend’s Paris apartment, dragging Malcolm—who’s been struggling to break the news of his engagement to Susan (Imogen Poots)—along for the indefinite ride. Accompanying them for the transatlantic journey (Hedges has spent a lot of time on ships recently) is the family’s black cat, which bears the unusual and eventually significant name Small Frank. Frances converted most of her assets into cash before departing, and seems determined, once in Paris, to spend this still sizable but by no means inexhaustible nest egg as speedily as possible.
That’s about all there is in the way of narrative (as opposed to incident, of which there’s plenty), though it becomes increasingly clear, as the film goes along, that Frances harbors some sort of death wish. For a while, French Exit serves primarily as a magnificent showcase for Pfeiffer, who’s been on a tear since re-emerging four years ago (in Mother! and Where Is Kyra?) and makes a hearty meal of this willful eccentric. Her Frances is the sort of woman who puts topspin on every sentence she speaks and has three extra facial expressions for any occasion; Pfeiffer can do wonders with a single word, as when Malcolm asks his mother whether he can ask her a “very dramatic question” and gets a hilariously dramatic “Yes” in reply. Hedges wisely stays out of her way, offering his best impersonation of a human doorknob, though Malcolm proves crafty enough to win Susan back from a rival by deliberately losing an arm-wrestling match with the guy multiple times, thereby prompting her concern for his bruised knuckles. Being tended to, one gathers, isn’t something with which this timorous young man has had a whole lot of experience.
Part of what makes this film special, then, is the way that it gradually assembles a family of sorts around Malcolm, without ever suggesting that Frances does so intentionally or that this collection of friendly strangers (plus Susan) can plug the hole that she’s about to create in his life. By the end, that Paris apartment also plays host to its owner (Susan Coyne), who shows up in response to a suicidal postcard that Frances didn’t even intend to mail; Madeleine the Medium (Danielle Macdonald), a genuine psychic with whom Malcolm had a fling on the ship (and to whom Frances keeps referring as “the fucked witch”); a private investigator (Isaach de Bankolé), hired to find Madeleine the Medium in Paris because Frances believes she can help them locate Small Frank, who’s run away; Susan and Susan’s new boyfriend (Daniel di Tomasso), with the latter eager to challenge Malcolm and not shy about expressing a desire to murder him, though he assures everyone that he won’t act on that; and, best of all, Madame Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey, perhaps best known for her ER guest role facilitating George Clooney’s very American exit from that show), a fellow expat who lionizes Frances and more or less applies to be her new best friend.
Jacobs manages this controlled chaos with a dexterity and brittle artificiality that’s quite distinct from all of his previous films. As comedy, it’s not to every taste—when French Exit had its world/virtual premiere at last year’s New York Film Festival, reviews (including that of our own A.A. Dowd) were decidedly mixed, with many complaining that the film lands in an unsatisfying middle ground between Jacobs’ usual relaxed naturalism and the formally aggressive quirkiness of a Wes Anderson or Aki Kaurismäki. For those on its wavelength, however, the matter-of-fact presentation of odd behavior gets funnier and funnier, even as Frances’ intentions walk an uncomfortable line between inspirational and disturbing (leaning more toward the latter). You either laugh or you don’t when Madeleine the Medium makes contact with Frances’ dead husband via a séance and his spectral voice, flickering a candle’s flame, sounds exactly as it would were he still alive and grousing from his favorite easy chair. Or when Malcolm looks in Madame Reynard’s freezer and discovers, for some reason, an ice-shrouded, penis-shaped dildo, then tells Frances to go look in the freezer (without telling her why), clearly anticipating a shocked or amused response, but instead gets silence followed by a sober discussion regarding exactly what the purpose and function of a dildo even is.
Apparently, deWitt (whose earlier novel, The Sisters Brothers, was likewise adapted into a film, though not by him) decided that the ending he wrote for the book wouldn’t work on screen, opting to fashion something a bit more ambiguous. It’s still pretty clear what’s going to happen, though—a reaction shot of Madeleine the Medium toward the end says it all—and acknowledging the aftermath would be dramatically untenable. To solve this problem, the movie circles back, for its epilogue, to a brief prologue set a dozen years earlier, when Frances suddenly withdraws Malcolm from the boarding school where she and her husband had selfishly parked him for most of his childhood. This stratagem doesn’t really work, because the scene’s two parts (at beginning and end) merely glance at the genesis of a semi-toxic mother/son relationship, raising ugly questions that the film, at least, just doesn’t have time to answer in sufficient depth. Nor does the final exchange between them have any mysterious revelatory force, as does, say, the flashback ending of Exotica. At best, there’s a symbolic moment involving the removal of a tie. Since the phrase “French exit” means to leave without saying goodbye, though, perhaps such an anticlimax is only appropriate.