Based on Patrick DeWitt‘s novel, “French Exit” is one of the more interesting films I’ve seen this year. This strange, quirky movie has a unique plot, an oddball cast of characters, and a smartly written screenplay (by DeWitt), yet it will likely divide audiences with its pacing and general weirdness. If you decide to throw logic and plausibility to the wind, you’ll be rewarded with fun surprises and a top shelf performance from Michelle Pfeiffer.
Widowed Manhattan socialite Frances (Pfeiffer) just found out that she’s broke. She doesn’t have the means to cope with her situation since she’s always been taken care of and comforted by her wealth and cushy lifestyle. At the advice of her lawyer, Frances sells off her remaining possessions for cash and takes off for Paris with her adult son Malcom (Lucas Hedges) and their cat, Small Frank. Since Frances has always planned to die before her inheritance ran out, she reveals in a postcard to her friend back home that as soon as her last penny is spent, she plans to kill herself.
DeWitt introduces a quirky cast of characters that plays much like a Wes Anderson film. They’re deadpan to the point of absurdity, a surreal mix of people with varying degrees of cynicism, dysfunction, and bitterness. It’s not easy to like any of these characters, yet you don’t want to tear yourself away from spending time with them. There’s the cruise ship mystic and fortune teller Madeleine (Danielle Macdonald), who tells elderly passengers on her ship that they’ll soon be dying; private detective Julius (Isaach De Bankolé), who is hired to find Small Frank when he runs away; and the kooky ex-pat Madame Reynaud (Valerie Mahaffey), who has a penchant for stashing sex toys in her freezer and steals every scene she’s in. By the film’s third act, Frances’s friend Joan (Susan Coyne) and her son’s ex-girlfriend Susan (Imogen Poots) have joined them in the cramped Paris apartment.
There’s a lot going on in this high society satire, including supernatural forces, familial disputes, and perhaps even a hint of mental illness. Director Azazel Jacobs brings an odd elegance to the farcical elements of the story, which plays like a cluster of genres tied together by wit and sardonic flair. His camera stands back to observe when a scene demands it, and confronts the characters head-on when the need arises.
Pfeiffer is perfect in her role as an aging heiress, even if her performance is far from subtle. She plays Frances with a devilish, matter-of-fact honesty, delivering thinly-veiled insults with an insincerity that’s worthy of an Olympic medal. In the end, it’s refreshing how frank Frances is, because a lot of these people need to hear the truth.
“French Exit” isn’t a film for everyone, but its eccentricity certainly is captivating.