French Exit stars Michelle Pfeiffer as a disaffected, broke widow who flees to Paris after losing it all in New York. This is the best role and performance Pfeiffer has had in years, and French Exit SHOULD be a genuine pleasure to watch just to see Pfeiffer do her thing, but rarely has a film made me want to throw my television off my balcony more. Directed by Azazel Jacobs (who directed the much more tolerable The Lovers, and also the excellent television series Doll & Em), and adapted by Patrick DeWitt from his own novel, French Exit starts out promising. Frances (Pfeiffer) is a wealthy widow who finds out the money has run out. After selling off all her assets, she cashes out and decides to go to Paris. Her hyper-laconic son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), accompanies her. There are early warning signs as Malcolm’s would-be fiancé, Susan (Imogen Poots), says things like, “I want you to know I’m trying to fall out of love with you,” and, “Were you expecting me to mourn my loss in perpetuity,” which is definitely how real human women talk, for sure.
But it’s easy to overlook these early glitches in the matrix, as Frances counters by describing herself and Malcolm as “vacationists”, which is a wonderful word, and they travel by cruise to Europe in a sequence that seems created solely to underscore how badly cruises suck. On the cruise, Malcolm meets fortune teller Madeleine (Danielle Macdonald), who predicts death and forms a bond with Frances’s cat (we’ll come back to the cat later). I wanted to adore French Exit so badly just for acknowledging that cruises are horrible, and a bunch of people die on cruises every year. But the anti-cruise sequence is short-lived, and soon enough Frances and Malcolm are ensconced in a Parisian apartment. (They are the kind of broke where you still have cash and access to posh digs.) Malcolm just sort of loafs around, discovering a love for riding a twee bike around Paris like he’s in a colorless Wes Anderson montage, which is not an interesting personality for a film character to have. I imagine Malcolm works a lot better in a book, where we have access to his inner monologue. Giving Patrick DeWitt the benefit of the doubt here that his book is better than his movie, but I can see how the deadpan approach to magical realism could work on the page in a way it does not on the screen.
French Exit takes a big step to the left after Frances’s cat runs away in Paris. You see, the cat is actually Frank, the reincarnated spirit of Frances’s dead husband Franklin (voiced by Tracy Letts). After the cat vamooses, Frances engages a private investigator to find Malcolm’s “witch” friend Madeleine so they can commune with Frank and find the cat. This is a tremendous amount of whimsy that French Exit approaches with maximum dourness—it’s like Practical Magic without the midnight margaritas. Michelle Pfeiffer is GREAT as Frances, but everything around her is the most unpleasant version of it itself. Characters allow increasingly absurd events to wash over them with virtually no reaction, which again, can work in a book but is just not engaging on screen. There is one pleasantly spiky scene where Malcolm denies Susan’s new boyfriend the pleasure of beating him in feats of strength, but overall, Malcolm is too uninterested in what happens around him to be interesting to the audience.
Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance will ensure that French Exit might attract some fans but you have to grit your teeth through some real unpleasant cinema to get to the Pfeiffer gold. I’m not sure the effort is really worth it. (What we need is a Michelle Pfeiffer fancam version of French Exit.) It’s just so ridiculous in the most frustratingly un-fun ways possible. I can’t even say “it’s always a pleasure to watch Michelle Pfeiffer do her thing” because, honestly, French Exit isn’t a pleasure to watch, even with Pfeiffer doing her thing. It’s boring and bland to look at, and despite all the whimsical elements it is a dour slog. If I had seen French Exit in a theater, it would have been a struggle to remain in my seat and not walk out.
French Exit is now playing in New York and LA and will open wide—whatever that means—in theaters on April 2. It will be on demand sometime after that. This is a great release plan for a pandemic, glad we’ve all learned how to make films accessible over the last year.