The Art of Making a FRENCH EXIT

“My plan was to die before the money ran out, but I kept and keep not dying and…here I am!”

When French Exit first launched as the closing night selection of the 2020 New York Film Festival, it didn’t take long to realize that not everyone was going to respond to the absurdist comedy. It was a suspicion confirmed by the early reviews that followed, nearly all of which praised lead actress Michelle Pfeiffer, but weren’t sure how to react towards the film itself. Upon French Exit’s New York and L.A. release this past February, it seemed early audience reaction was the same. It’s a reaction that’s easy to comprehend. The film’s script blends more than a couple of tones and all but abandons the three-act plot structure in favor of one that’s decidedly free-flowing as it places in its center a protagonist who isn’t the warm and cuddly sort made relatable enough to where any audience member would want her as a best friend. Instead, the film’s central figure represents the kind of emotional damage mixed with an acerbic humor that may rub some the wrong way, but serves to make French Exit the enchanting surrealist screwball comedy that it is.

Directed by Azazel Jacobs from Patrick DeWitt’s novel, French Exit sees Pfeiffer playing Frances Price, a Manhattan socialite existing under the shadow of scandal stemming from her late husband’s (Tracy Letts) death and the part she played in it. Living with her directionless son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) on what’s left of their inheritance, things take a turn for the dire when Frances is informed that her fortune has nearly run out, causing mother, son, and family cat to sell what they can and relocate to a friend’s (Susan Coyne) apartment in Paris. Once there, they attract the attention of various characters including a psychic (Danielle Macdonald), a private investigator (Isaac De Bankolé) and a cooky American expat named Madame Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey).

Much like the novel it comes from, French Exit is an undefinable sort of cinematic cocktail. This is especially true when it comes to its differing tones. The film is somber and poetic one moment before becoming darkly comedic the next. Influences of Woody Allen and Luis Bunel are apparent here, especially among the movie’s supporting characters, none of which can be considered as anything close to cookie cutter. As everyone finds themselves setting up shop in the Paris apartment, inexplicably drawn to the story’s central pair, the film’s various colors can’t help but continuously show with every moment.

French Exit is melancholy, humorous, bewitching, and whimsical thanks to the world it creates; a slightly heightened reality with one foot slightly off the ground where people are guided by instinct and feeling rather than logic and practicality. It’s the kind of world where Frances and Malcolm will hire the aforementioned private investigator to find the psychic, who proceeds to conduct a seance at the dining room table before the film eventually cuts to the whole group having drinks together in the same apartment four days later never having left it. Such events in French Exit are so wonderfully random and intriguing due to the sheer lunacy of them, that it might be easy to forget that the film is partly about lonely people reaching out to find some sort of human connection and end up finding it in a room full of strangers.

If there’s one element about the film that’s all but impossible to dismiss, it’s Frances. As a character, there’s hardly been a screen heroine that doesn’t offer up a myriad of personal reactions. At first glance, Frances is…a lot. She cares very little about what she says, who hears it or how it’s perceived. After she’s been rude to Madame Raynard, who is hosting them for dinner, Malcolm calls out his mother‘s rude behavior to which she sarcastically replies: “Isn’t it awful,” evoking the driest of humor. For Frances, it’s humor that has been her only weapon in a world which she feels has never had any use for her, regardless of how much money she’s had. For her entire life, money and all its trappings has been how Frances has defined herself and now that it’s vanished, she suspects she will soon follow.

But Frances is also a mother with a son she loves in her own way and vice versa. The relationship between her and Malcolm is an odd one which could well be called co-dependent if it weren’t for the fact that despite the pair’s closeness, they’ve remained largely strangers since Frances picked up her son from boarding school following her husband’s death. By the time the film reaches its end, French Exit has waded through the eccentric characters and odd happenings to be a story of a mother and a son with their own language finally finding each other. A late scene in the kitchen spells this out beautifully with Frances at her most open. When Malcolm asks her why she came for him that day, she says: “That was strange, wasn’t it,” with a coy smile before adding: “I didn’t know you were you. I would have come right away if I had. I never would have let you go in the first place.”

To say Pfeiffer steals the show is a grave understatement. Her hold on the character is so strong and captivating, that there simply wouldn’t be a French Exit this spellbinding without her stunning work. The way the actress holds her face, fixes her gaze, and delivers the film’s wickedly clever dialogue with that unique inflection results in one of the best performances of both the year and the actress’ career. Her reading of such a tricky character is pitch perfect and in Pfeiffer’s hands, Frances’s pain and humor shine through beautifully. As her partner in crime, it would seem that Hedges has very little to do besides gaze in awe at his legendary co-star, but the young actor brings a soulfulness and a longing to Malcolm that’s surprising and cannot be mistaken, furthering his standing as one of the best young actors working today. Each member of the supporting cast get a moment or two to leave an impression which shows their participation wasn’t for nothing. But Mahaffey is the only one able to come close to stealing scenes as a woman steeped in romantic ideals who cannot help but wear her heart on her sleeve.

As I said before, one of the biggest stumbling blocks French Exit will have with modern audiences is the fact that its protagonist doesn’t fit into the need most American audiences have to see themselves on the screen. Frances doesn’t adhere to the notion today that people are essentially black and white; a bad guy or a good guy. The reality is that almost everyone lives in a sea of gray with flaws and foibles which are a part of their character, but ultimately don’t wholly define them. French Exit knows this to be true and has offered up such a woman who has long been defined by a world she’s loathed for most of her life that no longer exists. Frances is caustic, unfiltered and doesn’t suffer fools easily. But she’s also vulnerable and tragic. She’s made so by the fact that she’s spent her entire life building up a protective wall against a society where her future is now almost certainly uncertain. She may not be the most approachable character to grace the screen in recent times, but in her own way she’s almost definitely one of the most alluring and heartbreaking.

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