Azazel Jacobs’ likably odd French Exit is headlined by the sharpest Michelle Pfeiffer we’ve seen in years, in a role so handsomely form-fitted to her talent, style, and attitude, it’s as if the movie had been written with that distinctive curl of her mouth, that magnetic chill of hers directly in mind. The movie — adapted by Patrick deWitt from his 2018 novel of the same name — is a tale about a classic, monied, New York City eccentric, the kind of person whose status is as obvious, in their utter aloofness to the world, as it is mysterious. Summing this up, somehow, with wonderfully caustic poise is Pfeiffer, who plays Frances Price: a widow on the verge — of going broke.
And also of dying. These things are directly linked — but you’d probably have to be as rich as Frances is, or rather was, to relate. It’s a matter of lifestyle, you see. Frances’ husband, Frank, died some years ago, and, well, there was only so much money left in the coffers (read: quite a bit, actually) for his family to live on thereafter. Now, Frances and her adultish, unlucky-in-love son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), have few options, all to the tune of sell it all, a purge about which Frances is remarkably ambivalent. Frances either wants or plans, perhaps even prophesies, her death, which so far as she’s concerned will arrive when she’s completely out of money. Yet she also has a funny way of wasting what little money she has: overtipping, giving wads of money to the unhoused in Central Park (though not out of charity, exactly), making a getaway trip to Paris to either live it out or, if her insistent whittling-away of her funds is any indication, not.
She wastes, and wastes away, on purpose — and her husband’s death in itself, the desensitizing shock of it, plays no small part in that erosion. And so … to France? It’s the trip overseas and the life awaiting them there that give the determined Frances and the rudderless Malcolm things to do, worlds to discover as, internally, their senses of themselves get scattered somewhat to the wind. This is the raw material, the backbone, of a movie that in so many ways hangs loose, swinging easily between grief and oddity in Jacobs’ spry, adaptable hands.
There’s plenty to say about the movie that’s better left to the film to reveal on its own — the significance of a certain cat, for example. The movie teeters on the edge of an uncertain reality, with mystical touches that draw it aloft and human ones that bring it back down to terra firma. It’s a film that sails, primarily, on the quality of its interactions, particularly between Frances and other women, like the great Valerie Mahaffey as Madame Reynard, who initially embodies what might possibly be Frances’ worst nightmare — a fan — and the equally wonderful Susan Coyne, as Joan, the closest thing imaginable to a genuine friend. The scenes with these women draw Frances, and Pfeiffer, out beyond the sense of caricature that the movie knowingly evokes. Madame Reynard is particularly useful here. Where her grief is like an open-faced sandwich, all gooey and stacked with ingredients and melting affect, Frances is far more guarded — until Reynard reminds her of her own brazenness.
These counterpoints make the difference. Frances is otherwise the kind of person to casually enjoy the sound of a knife being sharpened, the kind of person to enunciate the word “insolvent” with such grim assurance that you’re almost tempted to be jealous of her situation. And Pfeiffer is the kind of actor to make such moments make sense in a movie that persistently veers toward softly mystical known-unknowns, quirks of the sort that make you wonder if these people are genuinely strange or if it’s money, in fact, that makes them so. Pfeiffer somehow pulls of the pure fun of the role, chewing scenery with the utmost etiquette, leaning into the humor of the mere idea of her character, while also rending the woman’s emotional reality into something both plausible and pliant.
What winds up being strange, then, is that French Exit often feels so sleepy (not always intentionally, bourgeois ennui being what it is) but often with the sense that the filmmakers have gotten a little lost in the sauce. The film’s second half — after the chance meeting with the psychic (a fun Danielle Macdonald), after the semi-mystery of the cat resolves itself, after an unwitting Isaach de Bankolé finds himself enmeshed in this story — doesn’t quite keep the volley going, doesn’t quite match the interpersonal dynamism of its opening half. It’s a movie suffused by the kind of inward-looking mysticism that only money can buy, and the kind of grief that money can’t save you from.
Yet even a story as attractively unusual and unpredictable as this can fall prey to the quicksands of convention and lifeless resolution. Smudges of poor writing (particularly for Imogen Poots, who plays the maybe-fiancee of Malcolm) are in part to blame for this. There’s a words-escape-me, tingling, offbeat something about this movie that reels you in — a something dimmed, maybe, by the brunt of the film so clearly guiding us toward this impression. Once it gets there, it doesn’t quite know where to go. Wit gives way to enervation. Frances, dead or alive, has spark to the very end. But by then, so far as the movie’s concerned, she’s on her own.