A Review of French Exit
Existential contemplation, by way of dry humor and wry wit, is not as easy a path to walk as some might think. Or maybe nobody thinks it’s easy. Either way, it ain’t. This possibly well-known fact is put to the test again and again in Azazel Jacobs’ French Exit, a film with so many fantastic actors doing their best to inject life into a (pointedly intentionally) lifeless story that it gets by on charm alone, thematic convolutions be damned.
Our story follows Frances Price (Michelle Pfeiffer), an aging socialite of the upper-class New York scene, and her son, Malcolm Price (Lucas Hedges), as they travel to Paris to escape their newly found money woes. Frances’ irresponsible spending and general bad attitude have left her, for the most part, friendless. While on their trip, the duo meets a variety of characters that latch onto the story in one way or another, while simultaneously being visited by the few folks from back home who are worried about them. This leaves us with a single apartment chock-full of lively characters and unique interactions to be had, but the film never really lets these personalities shine, leaving the viewer wishing for just a bit more.
Based on his novel, Patrick DeWitt returns as screenwriter, seemingly to bring a more stylish and inadvertently more banal take on his original story. Woody Allen (*thunderclap*) has a tone and a wry sense of humor that is very hard to replicate, and many directors, (and even actors,) have been trying to do so for over forty years. Comedy, based in sardonic play and sneering caricature, is a very fine line to walk, especially when mainly dealing with upper-class white people. In particular, when those same people all of a sudden don’t have enough money to live out their usual lavish lifestyle, and therefore are forced (gasp!) to move into a family friend’s empty apartment in Paris. Now, I believe everyone involved in this project, from the writer to the actors, to the editor, does not necessarily want you to like these characters (most of them anyway). They’d rather you were interested in what’s going to happen to them based on their interesting dialogue, and there’s no getting around it: this movie thinks it is full of interesting ideas. It is not
For me, someone unfamiliar with the original novel, and honestly, quite over the whole “Spoiled White American Character Travels to Other Country and Walks Around While Talking About the Future” model of storytelling, I gotta say, I was extremely impressed with Pfeiffer, Hedges and the rest of the cast. While most of the humor doesn’t really land, which again, I think is part of the point, there’s a big difference between dry and dreadful. Despite all that, the actors do bring these characters to life, creating an extravaganza of hit-or-miss moments that are a delight to watch for those brief flashes of ingenuity. Valerie Mahaffey, who plays a starry-eyed fan of Pfeiffer’s Frances (from the old NY days) is particularly on fire throughout the piece as one of the only purely good people occupying this apartment. The stellar cast includes the likes of Imogen Poots as Hedge’s ex-fiance, Danielle MacDonald as a medium with a bad attitude, and Tracy Letts, as a disembodied voice of a family member from the past; it is truly and obviously Pfeiffer who steals the show.
Pfeiffer has been putting out amazing work over the past few years, obviously reinventing her image and persona in real-time as we watch her tackle demented thematic horror, chew-up-and spit-out Agatha Christie word soup, and star as a superhero in one of the most popular and successful franchises in movie history. In French Exit, she does phenomenal work communicating both the loneliness of her character, as well as the absurdity of some of her hangups. Her quieter moments, with old friends and homeless benchwarmers, are spectacular. Pfeiffer’s own experiences as a woman in Hollywood during an age where it was pretty much “be taken advantage of or rot,” really adds layers to the scenes about motherhood and female self-expectancy in a world with all eyes on them. Hedges is also an amazing counterpart for her to play these illusions off of, creating a very simple yet effective relationship between one character who knows their time is over, and one who isn’t certain what’s going to happen next.
French Exit is a film filled with cliché, so much so that they even have a moment where a character poetizes about being a cliché and defends the term as a positive. This version of cliché is romanticized as everlasting and aphoristic, but the flip side is that it can also be seen as commonplace and unoriginal, and the film shares a bit of both of these traits. It’s entertaining with a great ensemble cast, and splendid look and feel, but ultimately, it leads to nowhere all that interesting. It wasn’t even very clever about getting there in the first place, but I don’t hold it against the movie all that much, maybe because or in spite of it, actively pushing for and fighting against these very things from start to finish.
Founder of and programmer for Story Screen. Lover of stories and pizza in the dark. When he isn't watching movies, you can find him reading things about people watching movies. He currently resides in Poughkeepsie, NY, and most assuredly is going through a French Connection phase.