“French Exit” – Frances Price (Michelle Pfeiffer), a New York socialite, isn’t feeling very sociable these days. She’s depressed, frustrated, and broke.
Well, not completely broke. Frances sells off her jewelry and art to collect a tidy sum of cash. It’s not enough to live on, but Frances and her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) won’t go hungry next week.
Next year? That’s a different story.
You see, her late husband’s estate has become insolvent, and she has nowhere to live. Frances isn’t the type to ask for help, but her friend Joan (Susan Coyne) offers her Paris apartment as a retreat. Before you can say Eiffel Tower, Frances, her black cat, and Malcolm travel by cruise ship across the Atlantic Ocean.
During a VIP dinner, the captain (Bruce Dinsmore) leans into a conversation with Frances and says, “I understand you’re moving to Paris. Are you very excited?”
“I suppose I should be,” she replies.
I should be excited about “French Exit”! Director Azazel Jacobs’ (“Terri” (2011), “The Lovers” (2017)) droll comedy stars one of the world’s most recognizable actresses. It’s set in my favorite city, and one of the key characters is a cat. Hey, I’ve been volunteering at a no-kill cat and dog shelter for nine years, and if the opportunity arises, I’ll talk about my two-year-old Torbie for an hour. This looks like my movie.
Unfortunately, I cannot recommend this film.
Well, If you decide to catch this flick, my sincere hope is that you grab a coffee – and a croissant or two – and enjoy it.
Indeed, this movie – based on screenwriter Patrick deWitt’s 2018 novel – is aptly named. Due to financial realities depriving Frances of her creature comforts, she leaves The City that Never Sleeps for The City of Lights. This story, however, is far from bright and cheery. Similar to Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale” (2005) and “Greenberg” (2010), Jacobs’ film swims in downbeat and sarcastic tones.
Frances had a loveless marriage with Franklin (Tracy Letts) and refers to him as an emotional moron, but she’s not close with hardly anyone, including her son. She spends her days drinking and sulking, and her behavior (and genetics) rubbed off on Malcolm too. He’s pretty darn incapable of maintaining a lasting relationship with his fiancée Susan (Imogen Poots) and generally mopes around 24/7.
Their downtrodden personas are the immovable objects versus Paris’ irresistible force, and the screenplay appears to set up a specific premise. Will this European escape fundamentally change them – and more specifically, Frances – in a positive way or not?
Jacobs captures lush gardens and parks – like Place des Vosges – nestled around the ever-present Haussmann architecture. We don’t see many lively crowds, and it’s Christmastime, so the skies are gray. (Wait, no crowds during Christmas?) Still, Frances strolls along cobblestone streets and drinks coffee at cafes, as we see flashes of the Parisian experience.
However, our leads spend a lot of time (way too much) in the apartment. It’s spacious and comfortable but not ornate or in any way cinematic to the eye. One can suppose this is consistent with their characters, but have you seen Cleo’s apartment in Agnes Varda’s “Cleo from 5 to 7” (1962)? It’s a glorious, decorative, and open high-ceiling studio with a piano to boot. It’s a place to throw all-night soirees – with music, dance, and wine – six days a week…and then sleep on the seventh.
Not so much here, and the film’s second and third acts are primarily set in the said flat, but it’s a holding space for a couple of oddball script turns. One won’t be revealed here because that would be borderline criminal. The other is that various folks – who Frances and Malcolm meet on their journey – loiter in Joan’s place, like lifelong friends would. Since Frances hasn’t acquired many pals over her 50-plus years on Planet Earth, these new communal moments are growth opportunities. They do have a positive effect on her, but not necessarily on the audience. Familiar, capable actors like Valerie Mahaffey, Danielle Macdonald, Isaach De Bankole, Daniel di Tomasso, and Potts regularly convene at Chez Joan, but the movie doesn’t give them a whole lot to do. They sometimes argue but generally converse about random, unremarkable di minimis. It almost feels like their on-screen time is a collection of improv sketches, ones disconnected from each other.
It gets weird, but not freaky-weird.
Pfeiffer performs admirably in a notable role that purposely rolls in malaise, and she delivers an air and her lines with spellbinding appeal. Frances admits that she’s odd and difficult, and she doesn’t understand the world but reaches out in small doses, like handing a homeless man $20 and listening to his hopes for some wine and a hot dog. Maybe, she’ll have a perfect moment, like the aforementioned fella did. You’ll have to see, but it means sitting through this peculiar, baffling film, one that doesn’t reach its high aspirations about discontent.
⭐ 1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Image and Trailer credits: Sony Pictures Classics