Making a film about shiftless Manhattanites who have to sell off all their nice things in a fight against insolvency is an uphill battle right now. Maddeningly, director Azazel Jacobs’s French Exit manages to navigate this premise by humanizing, lightly mocking, and avoiding romanticization of its subjects, thanks in large part to an elegant and understated performance from Michelle Pfeiffer and a brilliant ensemble cast. The film is the closing night premiere at this year’s New York Film Festival, and turns out to be an enigmatic escapade that evades successful categorization.
Pfeiffer is Frances Price, a widowed Manhattan socialite who lives in a rambling Upper West Side home with her son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), and her black cat, Small Frank. Malcolm is engaged to Susan (Imogen Poots), but won’t tell his mother, and spends his days apparently doing nothing. Informed by her accountant that she’s run through all the money her husband left her, Frances sells off everything that’s left and heads to her friend Joan’s (Susan Coyne) Paris apartment, son and cat in tow. On the cruise ship over, Frances and Malcom meet Madeleine (Danielle Macdonald), a psychic who seems to know something deep and dark about Small Frank. Once in Paris, the family accumulate an increasingly absurd group of friends, even as Frances runs through the little that’s left of their money.
The difficult sell, especially in the current moment, is for French Exit to make us truly care about the trials of a group of well-to-do characters, most of whom obviously want for nothing even when they lose it all. It is Pfeiffer’s performance of an irreverent script that allows for us to feel sympathy (but not too much) with Frances’s idiosyncratic, slightly detached emotions.
Frances at first seems a static character, in command of herself, if not the situation, and either unable or unwilling to come to terms with her culpability in spending all her money, leaving herself and her son dependent on what they can make from the sale of all their nice things. But as the film goes on, we gain deeper insight into Frances’s past, her husband’s death, and her limited but real connection to her son. Pfeiffer imbues a character who might easily have been a caricature with real humor and pathos, without undercutting her inherent coldness and inability to completely connect with those around her. We see Frances spending thousands of euros at a time and are at first unsurprised that she managed to run through her husband’s money—then, as the story proceeds and Pfeiffer reveals more of her character’s interiority, the reasons behind her behavior become clearer and more complex.
This is not to say that French Exit is solely Pfeiffer’s film. Lucas Hodges provides a needed anchor as a young man shaped by his mother’s recalcitrance. Like her, he has difficulty forming real connections, and there’s a sense that he’s as shiftless in his own way as she is. He has no ambitions, doesn’t have a job (nor does anyone suggest that he get one), and annoys his fiancée by being unable to stand up to his mother or even appearing to want to. The dysfunctionality of the relationship also works, in its own bizarre way, as Malcolm begins to remove himself from his mother’s shadow by finally, actually, talking to her.
The supporting cast likewise provides needed balance, for Frances would not be enough on her own. As she and Malcolm accumulate a strange extended family, the viewer begins to invest in their lives. We like them in spite of themselves, much as the secondary characters who collect around Frances support and love her without quite knowing why.
French Exit feels like a Wes Anderson film in its fascination with the quirky lives of wealthy white people, and that in itself poses a problem—this may very well become a throwback before its time. At the same time, it manages to be both deeper and more charming than its initial premise suggests, treating of its subjects with a gentleness that humanizes them without excusing them. Like Frances, it is an enigmatic film, a bit difficult to categorize as it shifts between drama, comedy, and more than a tinge of the supernatural. Also like Frances, it manages to draw us in and make us care about people that we might otherwise not want to care for. I’m a little upset that I enjoyed French Exit as much as I did, and perhaps that’s the point. That’s its magic and its fascination.
French Exit was the closing film of the 58th New York Film Festival. It will come to theaters (we hope) on February 12, 2021.