French Exit is appropriately titled, because I wanted to make one about halfway through the picture. I'm not sure what the intent was here. The story starts off as though it's going to be a drama, then it changes to be a dark comedy. Then it changes again to become a wacky comedy, albeit one wrapped up in a sophisticated veneer. Another critic with whom I'm acquainted described it as a Wes Anderson film without the quirky production design. That's true, although the physical look of Anderson's work is precisely the thing that clues us in to the fact that he's got one foot in the fantasy world. French Exit, unfortunately, takes place in the real one.
Michelle Pfeiffer stars as Frances Price, a Manhattan socialite who's been living off her deceased husband's money for a decade. Upon learning that she's become financially insolvent, Frances sells what's left and moves to Paris with her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges). Those high life vibes don't disappear easily. Even with little money left, she tosses it about in a carefree manner.
That might make a really insightful story about the effect wealth has on people. Frances and Malcolm are clearly disconnected from reality. Their fortune has allowed that to occur. With everything they could ever want and other people to do the mundane chores for them, both can carry out self-centered existences. Getting stripped of the money should be the equivalent of a hard slap across the face.
French Exit doesn't go there, though. Instead, we get Price family interactions the lonely Mme. Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey), who inexplicably keeps a sex toy in her refrigerator and desperately, pathetically wants to befriend Frances. And the cruise ship psychic (Danielle Macdonald) who beds Malcolm, then later stages a séance so Frances can talk to her late husband. And Malcolm's ex-girlfriend (Imogen Poots) who shows up in Paris with her new boyfriend in tow after receiving what is essentially a transcontinental booty call from him. And a private investigator (Isaach de Bankole) who's hired to find the psychic and inexplicably keeps hanging around after his job is done.
None of those characters are particularly interesting. All of them distract from the most alluring part of French Exit, namely the codependent relationship between Frances and Malcolm. We want to see them try to cope with their pending bankruptcy, not talking to Mr. Price through a candle. (As an example of the picture's forced whimsy, they can hear his voice coming through the candle, and no one stops to comment on how improbable that is.) What we get is this motley crew intruding every time it seems like the movie is going somewhere interesting.
It's a shame, given that Michelle Pfeiffer delivers an outstanding performance. Her Frances is cold and mercurial. By the end, we see a glimmer of change. The actress accomplishes that with inner subtlety, while externally radiating the narcissistic aura socialites often possess. This ranks among the best work of her career. I wish it resided within a movie that trusted her to be enough.
out of four
French Exit is rated R for language and sexual references. The running time is 1 hour and 53 minutes.