Holding onto the moment

Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges on a scene in Azazel Jacobs’ French Exit

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Lucas Hedges to Michelle Pfeiffer on her knife sharpening in Azazel Jacobs’ French Exit: “After that scene I was in love with you.”
Lucas Hedges to Michelle Pfeiffer on her knife sharpening in Azazel Jacobs’ French Exit: “After that scene I was in love with you.”

Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance as the quick-witted Upper East Side socialite Frances Price in Azazel JacobsFrench Exit (the Closing Night selection of the New York Film Festival), is picture-perfect. And so is that of Lucas Hedges (Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea) as her son Malcolm. Based on the novel by Patrick deWitt, who also wrote the screenplay, this is the story of a strong-willed widow facing the fact that the endless flow of money she was used to is finally running out. Mother and son, plus a cat named Small Frank, who likely is the reincarnation of her husband (Tracy Letts voices him) embark to an apartment in Paris, lent to them by Frances’s old best friend Joan (Susan Coyne).

French Exit director Azazel Jacobs
French Exit director Azazel Jacobs Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

A most startling scene before they have the option to head off to France is introduced by the sound of a knife being sharpened. It is Frances, standing in the pitch-black New York kitchen. When Malcolm switches on the light we see her with the knife, wearing a beautiful blood orange blouse (costume design by Jane Petrie of Michael Grandage’s Genius), a glass of red wine placed next to the sink.

At the French Exit press conference with Azazel Jacobs, Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges, and Patrick deWitt, presented by HBO, and moderated by Director of Programming Dennis Lim, I sent in the following question and comment.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Can you talk about the scene where Malcolm discovers Frances sharpening the kitchen knife in the dark? It is unforgettable; the timing and rhythm are perfect.

Dennis Lim had previously asked about the most emotionally challenging scene for the actors.

Michelle Pfeiffer: I think the most difficult for me would have been the scene in the kitchen, the knife sharpening scene but mainly because of the technicality issues we were having. We just kept losing lights, we kept losing power. And when you’re doing those kinds of scenes - that was the beginning of shooting, too - so you haven’t really found your footing and are still trying to find the character out. It’s a tiny space and you kind of get … This is the worst thing for an actor, when you finally feel that you’re getting there, wherever that is, and then you shoot.

Screenwriter Patrick deWitt’s French Exit novel
Screenwriter Patrick deWitt’s French Exit novel Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

And then you’re riding that crest and it’s happening and then a plane flies over. Or a dolly creaks or somebody sneezes, or, you know, something happens and it sort of disrupts your moment. And I think it was one of those days and we felt like it was a constant having to get back. I mean, it just happens in films, on every movie. And we were lucky because it very rarely happened with us. It was such an easy shoot.

But for me, what I would say when they are the most emotionally difficult or when it’s the elements in some way, whether we’re shooting outside like when we were shooting the park scene with the homeless man, just sort of dealing with elements you kind of can’t control and you’re freezing and you’re uncomfortable. And those kinds of things where everything just wants to take you out of the moment.

Lucas Hedges: I really felt like after that scene that you were … I really felt like you were my mom after the kitchen scene. I really felt like I didn’t know you and then in that scene, after that scene I was in love with you. I really was like, you won me over completely. And I’m so happy it was in the first week, because I mean, I needed that early.

MP: Well, you won me over at hello. So there.

Hedges starts laughing and blushes.

Sony Pictures Classics has French Exit scheduled to open in the US on February 12, 2021.

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