April 3, 2021

Ryan Bordow

Review: ‘French Exit’ is a tipsy reunification with an old friend

In French Exit, a cynical heiress plans to kill herself once all her husband’s money runs out, and this woman is—thank god—played by Michelle Pfeiffer. After a brief hiatus from acting, Pfeiffer landed some choice roles in the past few years, even rejoining the superhero genre as Janet Van Dyne in the Ant-Man series. But her role in French Exit is more reminiscent of her Catwoman days than anything she’s done in the MCU: this one’s got claws.

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Frances Price is a miserable woman who has few friends besides her son (Lucas Hedges), as her husband had quite the negative reputation—and there’s also the rumor that Frances took a vacation instead of properly reporting her husband’s dead body, but that’s neither here nor there. Upon learning from her financial advisor that she’s flat broke and has to vacate her home, she decides a hasty suicide is the best way out (hence the title), but decides to delay her departure when a friend offers her a stay at a spare apartment in Paris (also hence the title). So off she goes, dragging Lucas Hedges on yet another transatlantic cruise with his family (as if last year’s Let Them All Talk wasn’t enough).

Pfeiffer and Hedges make a fantastic pair here. Sardonic in a way that suggests she knows better (or least that she thinks she does), Pfeiffer lacerates with her dialogue, angling her facial expressions like she’s working out the right words to emphasize in an eternally one-sided battle of wits. Hedges, continuing his streak of internalizing his performances to the point of pure, distilled subtlety, encourages his mother’s behavior with wry smiles, eager eyes, and knowing tones of voice. Their dynamic is precisely the kind that makes fiction enjoyable and real-life interactions a nightmare.

Well, depending on who you are. French Exit was adapted by Patrick deWitt from his novel of the same name, which deWitt describes as a “tragedy of manners”: a play on “comedy of manners”, a genre that aims to satirize the rich by exposing the phoniness of their lives. Frances is aware of but fine with the artifice of her privileged existence, and she only reserves kindness for others who’ve embrace their inner emptiness. When she meets a homeless man early in the film, her disposition softens when he admits he wants money so he can pair his stargazing with some wine—but when a police officer shows up to ask if everything’s okay, she treats the cop with nothing but bite. A false sense of duty is nothing to Frances; honest-to-god hedonism is her only religion. As a wealthy woman, she indulged in it; as a “poor” woman, she’d rather die.

The film doesn’t continue on from that point so much as it throws more people into it. Frances and her son accumulate a kooky cast of characters as they meander across the world, and every single one of them begins inexplicably living in the same apartment in Paris. A lot of French Exit is inexplicable, actually: it’s best not to take the narrative too seriously, as it’s only interested in reality so far as it gives us something to stress about. The Paris of French Exit is more of a strange, sarcastic purgatory, a stage for characters to reflect on their fortune or lack thereof with a dry, detached self-awareness—like Christian Petzold’s Transit by way of Whit Stillman. And the less it makes (literal) sense, the more fun it is, thanks to performances that latch perfectly onto deWitt’s playful writing style. Like absurdist comedy in general, deWitt’s sentences are all the funnier for ignoring conventions, whether they be social or syntactical.

To discuss the narrative in any detail would give away French Exit’s myriad small surprises, which riff on its themes of family, class, and purposelessness in loosely connected but acutely felt vignettes. French Exit isn’t a deep exploration of human droll and dread; it’s a tipsy reunification with an old friend, far enough from the past to laugh at your pain and close enough to the end to not care whether it matters.

★★★★   (4/5)