Directed by Azazel Jacobs from a screenplay by Patrick deWitt (who also wrote the play the film is based on), French Exit explores sadness and the heightened sense of hopelessness that can only stem from financial insecurity and a spiraling sense that the end is fast approaching. However, despite a brief focus on its themes and an incredible performance by Michelle Pfeiffer, French Exit doesn’t quite live up to the potential it sets up.
Years following the death of her husband Frank, Frances Price (Pfeiffer), a Manhattan socialite, has lost all the wealth she’s ever had. In a last ditch effort to preserve some of it for herself and her aimless son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), who is far less devoted to his fiancée Susan (Imogen Poots) than he is to his mother and has little passion either way, Frances sells her jewelry and belongings and moves into her friend’s vacant Paris apartment. Things take a strange turn, however, when her cat — whose name is Small Frank after her late husband — goes missing.
To be fully immersed in French Exit, the audience will have to embrace its quirks and go with the flow because the film’s logic isn’t exactly its strength. There are hints indicating what happened with Frances and her husband, where she was during his death and the aftermath thereafter. This dialogue comes in short bursts throughout the film, thankfully, rather than in one expository scene, though the time it takes to finally get the big picture may frustrate many. Although the film gets lost in the nonsensical nearer to the end, the story’s strength lies in its focus on Frances, a despondent woman who puts up a front for others while seemingly preparing herself for the inevitable.
With the money she has left, Frances lavishes in the finer things, generously tipping a driver, handing Malcolm a stack of cash when he says he’s going for a walk. Money is one of the only things keeping her going, feeding into the only lifestyle she’s ever known. But, cash runs out and so, it seems, does Frances’ hope. She’s lost (though she hasn’t lost her wit) and is trying to hold it together, with grim, sardonic smiles that trick people into thinking she’s still fine. Whereas Frances is the dominant character, the love she has for her son (and vice versa) shines through in many instances and it’s a reminder of the gentle, fond relationship between them and how it grounds the film. When the story delves into Frances’ emotions and her downslide as the story develops, the film is truly at its best.
However, French Exit falls apart in the second half, introducing a plethora of new characters who don’t add very much to the plot, nor do they deepen their relationships with Frances. In the case of some, such as Susan’s new boyfriend, they’re more of a nuisance than anything else, taking up space simply because they can. Their problems seem more trite by comparison, especially when factoring in Susan and Malcolm’s bland and seemingly aimless relationship (Poots puts in a lot of effort to convey her character’s caring nature to contrast Hedges’ nonchalance as Malcolm).
However, the plot is completely lost when Frances loses Small Frank. Seances and a talking candle are involved here (it gets very weird) and it might take the audience out of the narrative almost completely. While the focus remains on Frances and her feelings of turmoil, French Exit doesn’t fully grasp what it wants to be and drops the ball on exploring Frances and her interiority further, more concerned with shenanigans of all the houseguests and the potential ghost of her dead husband. In this vein, French Exit doesn’t make too much sense despite the solid buildup. It also becomes increasingly difficult to sit through, leaning heavily into the abstract absurdity of it all.
Pfeiffer is, as always, a force onscreen. There aren’t enough words in the dictionary to describe her talents, especially in a standout role like this one. She embodies the role of Frances, an assured, somewhat odd, woman who is comfortable being herself and even more comfortable with making others feel awkward having judged or spoken to her in a way she deemed unfit. Pfeiffer is mesmerizing, portraying Frances as an alluring mystery while simultaneously reminding the audience she is a human being with a range of complicated emotions. She’s distant and straightforward, loving and also incredibly sad. While the rest of the supporting cast is good, no one can live up to Pfeiffer’s performance or emulate her magnetic screen presence. In her gaze, the actress exudes warmth and steely resolve. Despite the film’s underwhelming and bizarre story developments, French Exit will remain memorable for Pfeiffer’s performance alone.
French Exit is playing in theaters nationwide April 2, 2021. The film is 113 minutes long and is rated R for language and sexual references.