There’s something incredibly enticing about seeing Michelle Pfeiffer next to Lucas Hedges on a cast list. On the one hand, you have a star of the past returning to the limelight hopefully to get the plaudits owed to her. And on the other, an upstart already boasting an Oscar nomination and a string of critical successes. So, when I first heard this combination was coming to screens, I instantly thought we would be getting a winner, but what we got is French Exit – an eccentric little film that manages to take some sombre subject matter and turn it into something oddly aloof yet also often funny and charming.
Azazel Jacobs’ latest tells of the rapidly becoming destitute Manhattan socialite Frances Price (Pfeiffer) and her son Malcolm (Hedges). Who, alongside their trusty cat Small Frank, tare up what little they have left in The Empire State to head to a small apartment in Paris at the behest of Frances’ friend Joan (Susan Coyne). There, an increasingly diverse set of characters enter the fray, all adding pieces to the puzzle of Frances’ life. You see, “well put together” doesn’t describe Frances. Rather, she’s perpetually erratic. In the very first scene, she waltzes into a boarding school to take her son away, and we are left to infer that this is the only life Malcolm has ever known since, one where he exists on the whims of his manic mother.
So of course, there is always a serious undercurrent through French Exit, and it takes Frances to some dark places, but the comedic tone never allows for exploring them. And this comes down to the aforementioned giant cast of characters who arrive to clutter the story. It begins with Madame Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey), a fellow widowed ex-pat from the high life. She’s introduced in a hilarious yet melancholy sequence that epitomises what Jacobs was going for at its best. But then comes Madeleine, a medium Malcolm spent the night with on their boat ride over. Then the cat begins to talk (voiced by Tracy Letts), and it is believed to be the spirit of its namesake, Frances’ dead husband and Malcolm’s father, Frank, but he’s also run away, seeing private investigator Julius (Isaach De Bankolé) come on to the scene. Then his arrival is followed by Malcolm’s ex-fiancé Susan (Imogen Poots) with her new beau Tom (Daniel di Tomasso) in toe. And before you know it, each of those seven human characters, for one reason or another, stays in the tiny French apartment. A number that ultimately becomes eight when Joan comes along to check on Frances.
Suffice to say, all this completely smothers any emotional resonance. Which is such a shame as the characters are quite funny, especially all too innocent Joan, who only hangs around because of how lonely she is now that her husband is gone. But as Julius and Joan ignite a humorous romance, and as Malcolm and Tom bicker over Susan, it’s hard not to think about the sad, tortured woman who began the film at the core and is shuffled aimlessly to the sidelines. And though we do get back to her, there’s an inescapable sense that both the character and Pfeiffer’s magnetic performance are smothered by fun but unrealised side figures who amount to nothing.
French Exit is not the film I wanted or expected it to be, mainly due to an overcrowded second half that smothers the narrative. But despite this, it remains an avenue for Michelle Pfeiffer to remind us how great she can be in roles with a bit more depth.
French Exit is available on streaming in the UK.