Michelle Pfeiffer’s best films – The Fabulous Baker Boys and Married to the Mob – display her wide range of talents. Since 2003, this versatile actor has been largely absent from major films, but in French Exit she returns with a vengeance.
Pfeiffer knows how to deliver a zinger, and in Azazel Jacobs’ film, based on the novel by Patrick deWitt (who also wrote the screenplay), she gets plenty of opportunity to do just that. Frances Price is a socialite down on her luck. She finds her wealthy husband, Frank, dead in bed and rather than calling the authorities, she takes a short ski vacation to Vail. Because, why not? Needing a companion for her next adventure, she pulls her young son, Malcolm out of his posh boarding school over the objections of the headmaster. “What do you wanna do?” she asks the son she’s barely seen. “You wanna come away with me?” Of course he does, and this odd mother-son partnership begins.
Frances, who readily admits she’s never worked a day in her life, is skilled at one thing: spending money. When her accountant delivers the news she’s broke, he asks what was her plan. “My plan was to die before the money ran out,” she says. “But I kept and keep not dying.” When the now adult Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) comes home, he finds his mother in the kitchen sharpening a large knife. “Are you cooking?” he asks. “No, I just like the way it sounds.” She then tells him they’re “insolvent,” even the $600 check she wrote to the maid bounces.
She sells what she can and stuffing Euros into a bag, she and Malcolm decide to live for a time in Paris, staying in an apartment owned by a good friend, Joan (Susan Coyne). Malcolm leaves behind his fiancé, Susan (Imogen Potts), with little explanation about what his departure means to their relationship. Along for the journey is a black cat, Small Frank, who carries the spirit of Frances’ dead husband, something confirmed by a psychic, Madeleine (Danielle Macdonald), that Malcolm befriends and beds on the ocean voyage.
Frances and Malcolm are barely settled in Paris when they receive an invitation to a party. Arriving at the home of widowed expat, Madame Reynard (a marvelous Valerie Mahaffey), they discover there are no other guests. Madame Reynard is lonely and hopeful that she and Frances can be friends. Frances’ response that she doesn’t want a friend, is cruel, but as the evening wears on, and the martinis flow, she apologizes. Soon, Madame Reynard is staying in the apartment. When Small Frank disappears, Frances hires a private detective, Julius (Isaach De Bankolé), to find Madeleine. He does, and she holds a seance where Frank (voiced by Tracy Letts), airs his grievances. The scene is hilarious.
Susan is trying to move on, but after receiving a call from Malcolm, she travels to Paris along with Tom (Daniel di Tomasso), who wants to marry her. Tom challenges Malcolm to arm wrestle, with Susan the prize. Malcolm makes no effort to win, yet Susan can’t let him go and sends Tom packing.
When Joan shows up, she’s understandably surprised to see so many people in her apartment. She’s also surprised to see Frances alive since she received a post card where her friend said that this time, when her money ran out, she would end her life. That doesn’t happen. Frances has more secrets to share with Malcolm. And there’s still Small Frank to contend with.
Pfeiffer is older but she’s lost none of her glamour or the ability to command the screen. Her acerbic comments, which she punctuates by pointing the ever-present cigarette, lack bite. Wrapped in a fur trimmed coat, Frances appears more intimidating than she is. Underneath that facade, she’s scared and without a clue about how she will survive.
Hedges appears to be underacting but his Malcolm is a passive observer in his mother’s drama. He’s as rudderless as Frances and he, too, is worried about what he will do without her. Frances lives large and whenever she goes, will leave a void. As the accountant said to his secretary after his meeting with Frances, “They broke the mold with that one.”
Top photo: Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges
Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics