NYFF58: “French Exit” is a nice looking but detached trip overseas

French Exit Michelle Pfeiffer & Lucas Hedges in French Exit (Sony Pictures Classics)

Michelle Pfeiffer dominates Azazel Jacobs’ dry comedy about a formerly wealthy widow who travels to Paris for one last hurrah.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 58th New York Film Festival.)

Let’s just cut right to it: French Exit is a movie I admire more than I like. Michelle Pfeiffer, who still serves some of the best faces in showbiz, is excellent. It’s well-made, taking place in Paris without resorting to the usual “huh huh we are in gay Paree!” cliches. It treats the subject of suicide as a sad but not unheard of fact of life. And yet, it’s so determined to hold the audience at arm’s length that one can only greet the ending with a “well, okay then” shrug.

Directed by Azazel Jacobs and written by Patrick deWitt (based on his novel of the same name), French Exit stars Pfeiffer as Frances Price, an eccentric widow who discovers that her financial coffers have been just about emptied. Rather than prepare for a very different future (or, worse, ask anyone for help), Frances cashes out her remaining bank account and decides to stay at a friend’s apartment in Paris. Going along for the trip is her dutiful son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), who uses the trip as an excuse to get out of explaining to his fiancee’ (Imogen Poots) why he hasn’t told his mother they’re engaged yet.

Despite watching what’s left of her money dwindle down to nothing right in front of her, Frances still lives an extravagant lifestyle, even taking a cruise ship to Paris and dining out every night. As it turns out, she’s deliberately trying to spend it all, in advance of a second, more final plan to avoid living the rest of her life in insolvency. While in Paris, she meets and spends time with other lonely eccentrics, like Mademoiselle Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey), a fellow wealthy widow who looks at Frances with equal parts adoration and simmering hatred, and Madeleine (Danielle MacDonald), a cruise ship psychic who is able to communicate with Frances’ dead husband (Tracy Letts), whose spirit is trapped inside a cat named Small Frank.

It’s so determined to hold the audience at arm’s length that one can only greet the ending with a “well, okay then” shrug.

When you consider the premise of a possibly suicidal woman traveling overseas with her weird, hapless son and their cat who’s a conduit for spirits, it really seems like French Exit has something. Sadly, none of it comes to much. A collection of characters in search of a plot, it feels like a series of individual short stories tied together into a seamless narrative, but with nothing substantial to flesh them out. Who is Frances Price? All we know is that she used to be rich, her husband (whom she didn’t seem to like very much) was murdered, and now she’s very sad. Even more of a cipher is Malcolm, who is presumably in his twenties, but has the awkward mannerisms of someone in their mid-teens. It doesn’t help that Hedges, normally a likable presence, opted to play the role as an affectless creep, reminiscent of Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. Frances and Malcolm don’t really feel like mother and son, but rather a pair of polite strangers who accidentally booked the same AirBnb and just decided to make the best of it.

Because we never really know them as characters, it’s difficult to become fully engaged in, well…whatever it is they’re doing in Paris. Spending Frances’s money, mostly, holding the occasional seance, and sitting in their apartment with the various oddballs and lonely souls they’ve met along the way. There’s something a little bittersweet about what must have been once an exciting, glamorous life for Frances dwindling to an unglamorous close, but again, because French Exit is trying to be a dry comedy of manners, it’s not terribly compelling. By the third act, when most of the cast has inexplicably decided to camp out in Frances and Malcolm’s apartment (including Malcolm’s ex-fiancee, who, in an implausible plot twist, suddenly decides that she can’t decide between her handsome, successful new boyfriend and Malcolm, who has the looks and personality of an unmade bed), the movie becomes actively disinteresting.

Presumably this worked better in deWitt’s critically acclaimed novel. Or, it’s entirely possible that it’s designed to appeal to a certain kind of audience, and that audience isn’t me. To reiterate, French Exit isn’t a bad movie, not at all. It just has a chill to it that really makes it hard to become engaged in what’s happening. It’s like small talk at an elegant cocktail party: not unpleasant, but rather empty.

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