Director Azazel Jacobs (The Lovers) marks his territory in French Exit. That territory is squarely in the realm of Wes Anderson and his ilk, albeit with some of the quirkier edges buffed off. Coincidentally – and perhaps confusingly – Anderson’s new film is called The French Dispatch.
Jacobs weaves a compelling story of love and loss from a script by Patrick DeWitt (who adapts his own novel). The film gently works its way through a series of off-kilter characters and moments. It doesn’t always work; but I found the journey worth taking.
New York socialite Frances Price (Michelle Pfeiffer) is broke. The money from her late husband’s estate is mostly gone – likely through Frances’ lavish lifestyle – and she’s facing ruin. But her old friend Joan (Susan Coyne) throws her a lifeline by offering Frances the use of her Paris apartment. So after selling everything she owns, Frances and her listless son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) set out for France, armed with bundles of euros, a black cat, and a sense of entitlement. After crossing the Atlantic on a cruise liner, Frances soon settles into Parisian life (she speaks French, which helps). Malcolm however is despondent over leaving behind his fiancee Susan (Imogen Poots). Another expat, Mme Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey), reaches out to them, but the haughty Frances seems quite content with her own company.
Their adventure is disrupted however when the cat, known as Little Frank, runs away. Desperate to get the animal back, Frances hires Julius (Isaach De Bankolé), a private detective. His task is to track down Madeleine (Danielle Macdonald), a clairvoyant Malcolm met on the ship. Seems Frances believes the spirit of her late husband, Frank, dwells in Little Frank. And she believes Madeleine is the key to finding the missing feline.
DeWitt certainly has an ear for dialogue, producing some memorable comic moments. But the film becomes very “talky” and labours in parts. That said, Jacobs pulls it all back together with a very elegant grace note at the end. While he leans into the quirky stuff, he keeps the film largely – though certainly not entirely – grounded in reality. One curious aspect of the film is its time setting. While parts of the external world (buildings, poker machines, cars, clothing) appear contemporary, no one seems to have a mobile phone. In fact, when Malcolm calls Susan from Paris, he has to use a pay phone. Julius’ only tool seems to be a notepad and pencil. When Frances decides to go to France, there’s not even a mention of flying – it has to be a boat. And if I’ve watched carefully enough, I don’t think any of the characters wears a watch (a sign perhaps?). So the characters exist in this kind of time warp where they’re simultaneously existing in the 2010s and the 1950s.
French Exit also has elements of the supernatural, or at least the metaphysical. I think Jacobs and DeWitt are using those elements in a rather subtle way to express a decidedly humanist viewpoint. But if you’re not into that stuff, take note.
Michelle Pfeiffer (Ant-Man and the Wasp) dominates the film as the larger-than-life Frances. The actor clearly has fun with the role. But more importantly, she finds hidden angles to the character, making her a fleshed-out person rather than the caricature she could have been. Alongside Pfeiffer’s powerhouse performance, the other cast members could have been swamped, but Jacobs allows them room to breathe. Lucas Hedges (Lady Bird) as Malcolm provides the “calm” to Frances’ “storm”. Valerie Mahaffey (Dead to Me) is brilliant in the difficult role of Mme Reynard, as is Isaach De Bankolé (A Violent Man) as the taciturn Julius. Danielle Macdonald (I Am Woman) adds vibrancy as the brash Madeleine, and Imogen Poots (The Art of Self-Defense) nails one of the best scenes in the movie as Susan.
Although French Exit takes a while to get where it’s going, I thoroughly enjoyed it. This isn’t one of those films you forget as soon as you walk out of the cinema. Jacobs has created a quite lovely film that will hopefully stay with you.
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David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television