French Exit is a delightful film with an Oscar-worthy performance by Michelle Pfeiffer. The movie is sometimes quirky, sometimes charming, and sometimes utterly absurd. But it is always full of heart and honesty. The story can be abstruse or perhaps even pointless, but strong performances and a wonderful soundtrack ensure audiences stay engaged throughout this weird time in a person’s life.
Based on the book by the same title, French Exit follows an aging, strident New York socialite, Frances Price (Michelle Pfeiffer), during the waning days of her life. With her inheritance depleted and her social circle gossiping, Frances retreats to Paris with her son, Malcom (Lucas Hedges), and their cat – who appears to be the reincarnation of Frances’ late husband.
French Exit is quirky and could easily have crossed over permanently into the absurd, which would have diminished the film. Fortunately, the earnestness of all its characters pulls the movie back from the point of no return by giving the film the grounding ballast it needs to keep from floating away. Instead, everything just clicks.
Imagine a world where everyone communicated straightforwardly with each other. No one dropped subtle hints open to interpretation; they just spoke their mind. French Exit is that world, and it’s amazingly refreshing to watch. In one scene, Frances is being rude to her neighbor and host, Madame Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey), during a party. Mme. Reynard, a sweet spirit who is recently widowed, simply and plainly asks Frances not to be cruel. It’s at once honest and vulnerable and speaks to the charm of the movie. As a result, the characters feel one-dimensional in a purposeful way. It’s as if we’re watching a parable of some kind, and each character plays a part of a greater lesson for the audience to learn.
Knowing that, the film does veer into absurdist storytelling that may be difficult for some audiences looking for something more prosaic and straightforward. The primary example would be the cat that Frances believes is her dead husband, Franklin (voiced by Tracy Letts), come back to life. Not only does Frances believe this, but she hires a detective (Isaach De Bankolé) to find a fortune teller who can communicate with Franklin via séance. Later, as the cast continues to grow, more and more people end up staying at Frances’ apartment in Paris. Near strangers who have no reason to stay over share beds. Even an ex-lover flies in from across the world with a new significant other in tow and spends the night. These heightened events threaten to turn the film into a farce, but the story manages to stay on the tracks, and these moments end up being endearing in their own odd ways.
The draw of French Exit, however, is Michelle Pfeiffer. Her performance is absolutely radiant, and it’s difficult to tell when she’s acting and when she’s being. The role of Frances gives Pfeiffer the room to command the screen, inserting subtle gestures, action, and nuance to fully flesh out the character. As such, credit is due to writer Patrick deWitt for crafting such a forceful and interesting role. Frances is her own woman. She acts on her impulses and doesn’t conform to standards. Therefore, she comes off as abrasive, but it’s also easy to admire her assertiveness – social conventions be damned.
Finally, it’s important to mention the excellent music provided by Nick deWitt, brother to writer Patrick. While the music is present enough to be noticed, it’s never a distraction. Instead, it complements the scenes, providing the lighthearted mood to movie moments that could easily be construed as dour or too serious. The music is another important voice in the film, if not an entire character altogether.
French Exit is lovely in every way. It’s beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, magnificently scored, and thoughtfully written. Personally, what endears the film to me the most is its sense of freedom. Frances strikes me as a person who will not allow herself to be trapped by anything – circumstance, social contracts, or even physical frailty. Instead, she’s the kind of person who does things her own way and in her own time. That’s the kind of everyday heroism that everyone can admire, especially when it’s hard to feel in control of anything these days.