Pfeiffer Is A Glimmering Blade in “French Exit”
“Do you know what a cliche is?” asks Frances Price rhetorically.
“A story so fine & thrilling it’s grown old in its hopeful retelling. People tell it, not so many live it.”
Frances is dying. A life in the enclave of cosmopolitan high society has grinded her into a cold blade. We admire the glimmer when the light catches her right and wince in discomfort when we see her dispassionately pierce anything less rigid than her.
The aloof swagger of Frances Price is courtesy of consummate steely treasure Michelle Pfeiffer, who continues her resurgence in the cultural stratosphere. Proceeding two big-budget Disney films (a Maleficent sequel and the all but necessary role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe), Pfeiffer leads the ensemble cast of Azazel Jacobs’s French Exit. Her performance brings to mind an earlier superhero role, that of Catwoman in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. It’s fun to think Selina Kyle grew into Frances, continuing to deliver detached wit with either the corner of her mouth or an eyebrow raised.
Her wary son Malcolm, played by Lucas Hedges, accompanies Frances as companion and confidant. Malcolm is an attenuated presence; balancing that of his mother to whom he is both deferential and bubbles with contempt. It’s a difficult needle to thread and even the talented hand of Hedges seems to shake at times. In a Q&A for the New York Film Festival, where the film premiered in the festival’s closing slot, Hedges appeared to struggle to describe the behavior and motivation of his character. At one point admitting “there’s something about Malcolm I just didn’t understand.” While complete understanding and articulation are by no means necessary hallmarks of a strong performance; Malcolm is meant to be the emotional core of the story. The occasional absence of that heart wasn’t glaring but felt as if an ingredient was missing from the recipe. But the film’s cast is a hearty bourguignon, one whose actors each contribute to the satisfying medley.
Madame Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey), an American expat, is a delightful counterpoint to Frances and surreptitiously delivers some of the film’s more memorable lines. “No one’s famous anymore, they’re all strangers to me,” she woefully remarks on the state of the social scene. Frances’s solitary friend Joan (Susan Coyne) draws out her humanity along with a dampened jealousy in Mdme. Reynard. The Madame’s unrequited affection for Frances is quenched by Julius (Isaach De Bankolé), a private investigator, who adds warmth to the chilly socialites. Madeleine, a charlatan cruise ship medium, invigorates the melange of characters. The appearances of Tracy Letts as Frances’s dead husband Franklin, who is trapped in a black cat named Little Frank, are enjoyable but scant.
Malcolm is engaged to Susan (Imogen Poots), a detail he has yet to share with his mother. Susan is a grounding force, pulling Malcolm from his mother’s icy shadow and their lofty socioeconomic echelon. The two meet at a cafe where Malcolm, bouquet in hand, informs his finance he is following his mother to Paris. “You don’t bring flowers to someone you’re saying goodbye to,” Susan informs Malcolm. This lack of emotional perception exists in both Malcolm and his mother; who use gifts to display affection, even when inappropriate.
Frances’s affection has a specific direction. Her confidence belies a distaste for herself. She is charmed by those she is unable to see her reflection in. This does not include her son, to whom she reveals about his birth “I’ve never been so hurt. Because you were your father. Because you were me. All three of us. So ruinous.”
There is a resemblance inherent to the French Exit that can be hard to shake; that of mise-en-scene obsessed auteur Wes Anderson. Frances, the misanthropic matriarch for whom we both pity and admire, is not unlike the troubled patriarchs that appear so frequently in his films. Anderson also has a predilection for basing his stories in aristocratic worlds where it’s denizens behave and speak with undeclared, stitled precision and those not native stick out like brass buttons at a black tie affair. One can either appreciate the similarities or feel the strange unease of a stylistic uncanny valley.
There is beauty in Jacobs’s second adaptation of a Patrick Dewitt novel. A beauty similar to the opulent decaying fruit in a Flemish painting; displaying rich color and subtextual depth.
Come for the idiosyncratic explorations of death, friendship and love; stay for Michelle Pfeiffer spitefully lighting table flowers on fire.