Runtime: 110 minutes
Director: Azazel Jacobs
Writer: Patrick DeWitt
Stars: Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges, Valerie Mahaffey, Susan Coyne, Imogen Poots, Danielle Macdonald, Isaach De Bankolé, Tracey Letts
By Morgan Roberts
Frances (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a flailing socialite, trying to squeeze out her dwindling inheritance for her remaining years. Her son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), loyally remains by her side as this already destructive woman begins her hurricane of a spiral.
“French Exit” (2021) is a simultaneously both a slow-burn and a chaotic film. The chaos inherently comes from Frances, a woman of great privilege, who likes her way of living but also sees it as an albatross of sorts. Meanwhile, she has the strangest relationship with her son: Malcolm is endlessly loyal, even ruining his own engagement to Susan (Imogen Poots) by fleeing to Paris with his mother. In some instances, it is heartbreaking to see these two characters stuck in their devotion to each other, enmeshed and unable to break apart.
Even with Frances’s privileges and wealth and cushiony life, you cannot help but be drawn into this character. Pfeiffer gives her this depth in her chaos that is far more than a wild woman, but a deeply broken, lonely, and fearful person.
The slow-burn comes from the inevitable end for Frances – I won’t be spoiling it, precisely, but once you see the opening cue card, you’ll know the journey you are about to embark on. It is like watching a car crash in slow motion. You know the shoe is going to drop, you just don’t know when or how or the ripple effect.
The film hosts some incredible performances. Hedges is endearing as Malcolm. You get to understand this man is simply a young boy wanted to be loved by his emotionally-belligerent parents. Meanwhile, Valerie Mahaffey gives my favorite performance as neighbor Madame Reynard, a widow longing for companionship. Mme. Reynard is kind and lonely, and rather than turning inward like many of the other characters, she seeks companionship. Mahaffey allows for Mme. Reynard to sometimes be the voice of the audience when the film gets a bit wacky. I think the twists in this film are very unnerving in some cases and wildly entertaining in others, so I don’t want to spoil too much, but I will say that there’s a crazy cat and a séance.
“French Exit” also proves that Pfeiffer is one of the best actresses working today. We certainly do not appreciate her enough or give her the roles of substance she deserves. Even with Frances’s privileges and wealth and cushiony life, you cannot help but be drawn into this character. Pfeiffer gives her this depth in her chaos that is far more than a wild woman, but a deeply broken, lonely, and fearful person. Frances knows how to survive, but there’s a darkness within that tugs at her. She never knows when or how that darkness will engulf her. Pfeiffer makes it very clear that we will never fully know Frances, but that we should take the glimpses of what she gives us the attention they deserve.
While the film holds some incredible performance, it also tends to be a bit long. The dialogue is stylish but can be a bit standoffish. It felt like an old film, and while there were times that felt magical and whimsical, some moments were a bit alienating. The film is based on a book – and written by the author (Patrick deWitt). Part of me wonders if so much of the original material made it onto the screen and if that is why it felt a bit scattered and lofty at times. Regardless, the film is impressive with its twists and turns, with allowing its actors to give you some top-notch performances, and a score by Nicholas deWitt (elder brother of Patrick) that is to die for.