Film review: ‘FRENCH EXIT’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Mordant comedy/drama French Exit, which is based on the 2018 novel by Patrick de Witt, evokes a number of film auteurs but particularly the oddball works of maverick director Hal Ashby (Being There, Harold and Maude).  Like Ashby’s films, French Exit infuses an unusual story of family and relationships with sharp humour and a dark sense of the absurd although it eventually opts for unnecessary quirkiness that dilutes the film’s impact.

Here, Michelle Pfeiffer plays down-on-her-luck Frances Price, a once wealthy fixture of New York’s social elite now a widow who has burnt through the funds left by her husband (Tracey Letts) and along with her live-in adult son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) faces bankruptcy.   With the idea of her or Malcolm getting a job never a consideration, Frances sells nearly everything she owns and accepts a friend’s offer for her and Malcolm to live in her empty apartment in Paris.  Accompanying them across the Atlantic is their pet cat Frank.  As an outsider in a new world, Frances develops a sliver of introspection and begins to reassess her relationship with Malcolm and with her late husband.

While the film establishes a few plot threads, this is essentially a character piece and one more concerned about Frances’ strange, amusing but sometimes sobering interactions with those around her.  These acquaintances at one point involves about six people who have attached themselves to her and Malcolm and wind up living in the Paris apartment.

Whether by design or coincidence, Pfeiffer’s Frances is very reminiscent of Catherine O’Hara’s vain, acerbic and extravagantly attired grande dame Moira from Schitt’s Creek.  Pfeiffer delivers a masterful performance making Frances sarcastic and contemptuous but with enough flickers of humanity to prevent her becoming monstrous.  Lucas Hedges, who’s become the go-to guy for troubled adult sons is less impressive although he is in an admittedly less showy role. His Malcolm remains a mysterious yet underwhelming figure for much of the film although flashbacks to an incident when he was a student at an elite school provide some insights into his character and unusual relationship with his mother. With his blank indifference to much of the strangeness going on around him he wouldn’t be out of place in a Wes Anderson film.

Largely as a result of the script rather than their performances, the supporting cast are a mixed bag.  Most of the odd characters who start to fill up the Paris apartment, including Imogen Poots as Malcolm’s secret fiancé, Isaach de Bankolé as private detective and Australia’s Danielle Macdonald as an alleged psychic, are underdeveloped and we’re left waiting for them to have more impact. The exception is Valerie Mahaffey who is wonderful as Mme Reynard, the emotionally fragile ex-pat American who is mesmerised by Frances and desperately tries to befriend her.

The film takes a few particularly odd turns and one subplot involving the cat and apparently genuine psychic powers feels like a ‘jump the shark’ moment although director Azazel Jacobs manages to regain control and dovetails this sequence into the story without too much of a clunk.  Still, the film meanders about a little too often and while it has just enough style and wit to satisfy most audiences, French Exit doesn’t quite deliver the dark and corrosive comedy/ drama its early scenes promise.

Nick’s rating: ***

Genre: Drama/ comedy.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Azazel Jacobs. (Son of Ken Jacobs)

Release date: 18th Mar 2021.

Running time: 112 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

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