French Exit

*****

Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

French Exit
"Pfeiffer’s delivery is fantastically inscrutable." | Photo: Courtesy of NYFF

Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance as the quick-witted Upper East Side socialite Frances Price in Azazel Jacobs’ French Exit (the world premiere was 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).

“Do you ever feel that you’ve had adulthood thrust upon you at an age when you’re still essentially a child? Mimicking the behaviours of grown-ups all around you so they won’t uncover the meagre contents of your heart?” asks Mme Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey), a new Paris friend, so to speak. This quote may well be the open sesame to understanding the entire assorted troupe of French Exit.

It is also Mme Reynard, clever fox that she is, who throws in an uncredited Emily Dickinson poem which perfectly captures the many facets of tone that make this movie so enjoyable and emotionally profound: “I sing to use the waiting / My bonnet but to tie / And shut the door unto my house; / No more to do have I, / Till, his best step approaching, / We journey to the day, / And tell each other how we sang / To keep the dark away.”

Unlike the novel, the film begins with a flashback to the moment when Frances, freshly widowed, takes her son (played by Eddie Holland) out of boarding school to actually begin to get to know her child. In the present of the film, the grown-up Malcolm (Hedges) still lives with his mother and the umbilical chord seems to have grown stronger, albeit with complications. At breakfast, Frances drops a few extra strips of bacon onto her son’s plate, one of several unobtrusive shout-outs to those in the audience familiar with the book, where Frances is accused of attempts at fattening up her son to make him unattractive to girls who could snatch him away.

One such girl is Susan (Imogen Poots), Malcolm’s unannounced fiancé. “Oh, to be youngish and in love-ish!” That’s all the sarcasm Frances affords that relationship. In any case, things look really bleak financially, according to Mr. Baker (Robert Higden) who deals with these kinds of things. A most startling scene is introduced by the sound of a knife being sharpened.

It is Frances, standing in the pitch-black kitchen. When Malcolm switches on the light we see her with the knife, wearing a beautiful blood orange blouse, a glass of red wine, placed next to the sink. Above it three little pots of herbs: one lively basil, one aslant thyme and one dishevelled chives. No, she is not cooking in the dark, she simply likes the noise. Which is appropriate. This is how Malcolm finds out that they are insolvent and “have nothing left.” In response to these tidings, Small Frank scrambles up the stairs to watch the financial news on TV.

Broke or not, Frances knows how to deal with the assessor Ralph Rudy (Larry Day) of their property as well as Daniel (Christopher B MacCabe), a homeless man she and Malcolm encounter in Central Park. These are tricky scenes of clashing social classes, but Jacobs does not falter and holds the balance that is kept in the book. People may be ridiculous but they are not ridiculed.

We get to love this mother/son duo because they are so human and flawed and truthful in their idiosyncratic behaviours. Which doesn’t stop when they leave New York, by ocean liner, where Malcolm “befriends” a clairvoyant named Madeleine (Danielle Macdonald) who sees green when people are about to die. Madeleine, staring at Small Frank, asks “Do you not know?” “We know” responds Frances. Michelle Pfeiffer’s delivery of lines like this is right on the money.

The clothes Pfeiffer wears (costume design by Jane Petrie of Michael Grandage’s Genius) look marvellous throughout and complement her hair, which glistens in the exciting colour combination of the in- and outside of a cantaloupe. A black lace dress she wears to the Captain’s (Bruce Dinsmore) table is a view more elegant than the tacky carnival atmosphere of some areas of the boat deserve. As an aside we learn the chilling statistics of how deep the ocean is and that death visits frequently, “two bodies a day is the industry standard.”

At customs in Calais, Frances, with Small Frank valium-ed up holding siesta in her cognac-coloured leather duffle bag on top of their remaining cash, charms the officer. “We’re vacationists. I want to see the Eiffel Tower and die.” “Chasing after youthful fantasies,” she reports as the purpose of their trip. Pfeiffer’s delivery is fantastically inscrutable.

They arrive at her friend Joan’s Paris apartment, set things on fire with a rude waiter (Benoit Mauffette), get Malcolm a bike for transportation and accept a party invitation by Mme Reynard. Mahaffey steals many a scene and the dialogue reaches wondrous new heights when cruelty turns to pity and then a sudden understanding that is different altogether. Mme Reynard’s husband died choking on lamb. “And have you eaten lamb since?” asks Frances, and explains her own preferences when the host reveals she never liked lamb much in the first place. “I don’t either. The gamy meats somehow summon the fact of the animal’s existence, which puts me in mind of its death.”

Mme Reynard recounts to Frances a memory from New York that impressed her so, where the recently widowed Mrs. Price stared down a rude man at Le Cirque (strangely Mahaffey pronounces it Le Circe - to protect the famous restaurant that closed in 2018? Or by mistake?) After this first small bonding of the two widows, all hell will eventually break loose, or rather, congregate in Joan’s apartment.

Similar to the way things turn chaotic in the second half of films like Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby or Jean Renoir’s Rules Of The Game, French Exit invites disorder, the kind that makes you think of slumber parties or school trips. The adults turn children again and who doesn’t like it can leave. A few more characters are introduced and old friends return. Small Frank decides to run off and Malcolm’s “witchy friend” is the one who they think could help out. Good thing that Mme Reynard knows Julius, a detective (Isaach De Bankolé).

Meanwhile Susan has a fresh new, former ex-fiance Tom (Daniel di Tomasso) and a worried Joan decides to check in how her troubled friend is doing in her apartment. A couple of most unusual séances, (if you can say so), a gift of an orange, some arm wrestling and some Marina Abramovic allusions later, a final mother/son conversation brings it all in focus again. “Your father is an emotional moron, but he isn’t evil,” is one of her conclusions.

Reviewed on: 14 Oct 2020
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A Manhattan socialite whose inheritance is running out moves to a borrowed apartment in Paris with her son and cat.

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