Sometimes, it is best to go into a film with zero expectations. I went into Azazel Jacob’s French Exit with the general idea of what the film was about, but that was about it. I hadn’t even seen the trailer.
The film rewards my blindness with an unraveling story of death, parenting, connection, money and the things that get you there. Michelle Pfeiffer proves has still has a fastball and the odd supporting characters populate an increasingly enjoyable environment.
Pfeiffer stars as Frances Price; an infamous New York socialite widow who is insolvent. Her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) is hopelessly devoted to her and doesn’t bat an eye when Frances declares they are moving to France. Frances sells as much as she can, takes stacks of cash in Euros, packs up her son and her cat Small Frank and heads across the Atlantic.
The cruise to France is filled with its own eccentricities. Malcolm witnesses a fortune teller (Danielle Macdonald) predict a elderly woman’s death and he later sleeps with her. The woman later takes a special interest in Small Frank, imploring Frances to care for him. Frances drugs Small Frank and allows them through customs.
Once in France, Frances can’t help but bring odd people into her orbit. She shows no desire to be nice or even pleasant, but she certainly is not discouraging hangers-on. The most notable of these guests is Madame Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey), who invited Frances and Malcolm to a party, with no other guests. After the party, Madame Reynard is glued to the side of Frances, boozing her way through pleasantries and the mysteries that unravel. There is also a private investigator (Isaach de Bankole), Malcolm’s ex-girlfriend (Imogen Poots) and her fiance (Daniel Di Tomasso), the fortune teller and Frances’ New York friend (Susan Coyne) are all in on the fun.
Nothing about any action is rooted in an actual reality. Frances and Malcolm don’t have jobs. They exist floating through the world and dining in cafés, where they leave unnecessary tips. There are no real consequences for any action, and when things dip into the surreal, every character takes it in stride. No one acts as an audience surrogate and no overt exposition is given for the way things are. Just a blank acceptance and movement forward.
Pfeiffer subverts expectations with her performance. While she fits the socialite like a glove, she doesn’t succumb to compassion for the woman and refuses to apologize for the way Frances behaves. She refuses to suffer fools, but Pfeiffer does it with such confidence, that it bellows arrogance but also a respect which all the characters defer to. Malcolm especially follows his mother and Hedges characterizes him with as littler personality as possible. His life has been purposefully shaped by this woman and Hedges does a male impersonation without the harsh arrogance. Hedges definitely had an idea for what he was going for, but the film can’t cope with what he is giving. People are drawn to Malcolm without reason and the performance does not back up why that would be the case.
Mahaffey gets the showiest supporting role as a woman who desperately wants to not be lonely, but also just wants to be considered in the orbit of someone as known as Frances. To Madame Reynard, anonymity is as terrible as loneliness, but forgoes the sadness for giddy joy. You are never meant to pity Madame Reynard and Mahaffey has a gin-soaked blast with the character.
The genre-bending twist of the film might put some off, but Jacobs directs with such honesty and a lack of sensationalism, that I can only laugh when the twist is employed. The characters buy in completely so it felt 100% earned.
Jacobs proves to be a different voice in the world of independent filmmaking and I welcome her next efforts with open arms. Much like the characters of French Exit, whatever odd thing is happening in her films, I will take it in stride and accept it for what it is.