NYFF: This thin farce is well worth it for Michelle Pfeiffer, who divides the difference between Selena Kyle and "The Real Housewives of New York".
Frances Price has a problem. It's not that she has no friends, or that she's wasted most of the 12 years since she was widowed, or that her adult son Malcolm is just as much a dilettante at 20 as he was at 65 – all of these things are true, but they don't seem to bother her very much (moreover, Frances & # 39; deceased and laden husband appears to have been reborn as a black cat, which she calls Small Frank). No, Frances & # 39; problem is that an infamous celebrity like her can't afford to be poor. "My plan was to die before my money ran out," she proclaims at the head of a low-key farce about her last adventure, "but I went on and died no further, and here I am."
Death is always just a few dollars away in the ironic and seductive French Exit, a musty tragedy of manners that director Azazel Jacobs and longtime friend / casual collaborator Patrick DeWitt adapted from the latter's novel of the same name. For Frances, who plays a jagged Michelle Pfeiffer like an intoxicating cross between Selina Kyle and Luann de Lesseps, the dwindling stacks of money in her bedroom closet are the last grains of sand in an hourglass that was turned upside down more than a decade ago when Big Frank died and she pulled Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) out of boarding school because she needed someone to love her. Immediately penniless, Frances decides that she and her infatuated son and family cat, who may or may not harbor the ghost of her long-dead husband, are going to take a break: they'll convert the money they have left into euros and keep sailing a sticky one Cruise ship across the Atlantic and in a borrowed Parisian apartment until it's dry.
So begins a sleepy, gray Sunday afternoon of a movie that feels like an over-competent Aki Kaurismäki comedy one minute and the stupidest thing Whit Stillman never did the next. The best routes invariably share the difference, such as the cold-dry stretch where Frances and Malcolm find that cruise ship morgues are a lot busier than you can imagine. The rest is observed with a blank look. The no-frills approach that Jacobs refined with the likes of "Terri" and "The Lovers" goes particularly well with this material: On the one hand, Jacobs' refusal to improve the film in order to match his characters on their level stifles the Well-led screwball energy that seeps right under the surface and prevents “French Exit” from becoming a more animated farce. On the other hand, it creates a world that is almost as indifferent to Frances and Malcolm as it is to them in return.
These people are out of sync with reality, but only by a toe or two, and when this eccentric family portrait often seems ready to freeze into a less symmetrical relative of "The Royal Tenenbaums," even at the more explicitly surreal moments in his second half always keeps one foot on the ground. The result is an anodic, if increasingly delicate, little film that would have been lost in its own line without the strength of its cast.
For a film about someone trying to escape (from New York, from themselves, from this mortal shell), French Exit is never in a hurry to get anywhere, but Pfeiffer's luscious and crumbling twist always gives it a sense of direction. Your Frances is like an old bird of paradise who has lived in a mahogany cage all his life and suddenly has to wander halfway around the world to die in style. She's an endangered species of Manhattan celebrity – one trapped in an echo chamber small enough to feel like a coffin – and even the untrained eye could identify her species from a mile away, as she swam up Central Park West.
Frances never aspired to be more than a cliché ("people tell it, not that many live it," she coo boastfully), and the way Pfeiffer always listens to how Frances sounds to himself, has a poignant comic perfection. She ties every line with the nausea of hearing your own voice on the other end of an important phone call, and the dizzying movie around her appears to be the result of a middle ear problem. "My life has fallen to pieces and I'm upset about it," she explains at one point, like an actor accidentally saying the direction out loud.
Malcolm is the only person not keeping an eye on his mother, and Hedges' subdued but strikingly thoughtful performance is anchored in a place of almost complete acceptance. "French Exit" is always at least a little fascinating when he and Pfeiffer are on screen together. There can be private moments when Malcolm has his doubts – it's always weird when your mom sharpens her steak knives in the middle of the night! – made more touching when the couple became a united front in public. In one particularly unusual scene, Frances encounters a homeless man in the park one night (it turns out she has a curious thing for the homeless), and the way Malcolm stands behind her in a stoic pose of absolute support is one such a pure representation of a son's love for his mother that it borders almost on the perverse.
"French Exit" works its way across the ocean due to the friction between the enviable nature of their "I want what they have" relationship and the nagging feeling that Frances has to let Malcolm out of their shadows. The boy doesn't even close an eye when his mother tells him he has to drop his new fiancé in Manhattan (Imogen Poots brings the film together as the confused Susan and shows the same no-nonsense satire present that once Peter Bogdanovich's " She's so funny "by itself).
Once Frances and Malcolm arrive in Paris, they make an eclectic crowd of new friends as they return to a fabulous story of the pricelessness of the company we run. Danielle Macdonald has fun as a dull and horny cruise clairvoyant who refuses to gloss over the truth of her readings. Valerie Mahaffey is spectacular and hilarious (in Jacob's slight chuckle of a comic book register) as a lonely widow who's kept a dildo in her freezer and is committed to making the best of things no matter what. In the meantime, the great Isaac de Bankolé is a dependably warm presence helping to detach this film from the real world in a final act that breaks the "love is all you need" ethos from something like "Paddington 2 “Approaches (a mood that only gets stronger when Small Frank starts speaking in Tracy Lett's voice during a handful of séances). DeWitt's insistence that money does more to keep people apart than bring them together is soft enough to make the film look like a silky window dressing, but the final section of "French Exit" still dissolves into one pretty much unambiguous imaginations about the kind of families that people might be able to make for themselves when the world revolves around a different type of currency.
That reading seems to have wider reach in the movie than in the book (although DeWitt writes both), but Jacobs doesn't give us much else to hold onto. For all of its touching moments – and a series of closing graceful notes that shimmer with a mystical flair lacking in the rest of the film – this razor-thin adaptation is hampered by the same ambivalence that has haunted Frances for so long. We like these people, but we're not quite invited to join them. It's never been nicer to see a movie about people who make the best of things, but “French Exit” is too distant to deal meaningfully with how these characters improve on the way to the door.
"French Exit" premiered at the 2020 New York Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics will release it in theaters on February 12, 2021.