There has always been a bit of the vulpine to Michelle Pfeiffer, traces of it in the impossible angles of her cheekbones and the potential for sharpness in her smile. But in French Exit, her character, Frances Price, may as well be half fox, with the Upper East Side as her henhouse of choice. She bursts into the movie in a flurry of russet tones and fur, loping down the hallway of a boarding school to extract her young son, Malcolm, over the protests of the flustered administrator. Frances, a notorious Manhattan socialite whose encounters always seem to end with an implied snap of the teeth, doesn’t seem to have been much of a presence in her kid’s life until that point, but she wins his loyalty forever with the sly offer “Want to come away with me?” You can’t blame him for being swept up — his mother is a thrillingly undomesticated presence in their stuffy world of wealth, exuding adventure and chaos. When the film picks up years later, though, it finds Frances broke and in retreat. “My plan was to die before the money ran out, but I kept and keep not dying, and here I am,” she tells the financial adviser who has been overseeing her late husband’s estate. She’s not joking. When her best (and only) friend, Joan (Susan Coyne), offers her the use of an apartment in Paris, Frances hops on a ship with Malcolm (now played by Lucas Hedges), their cat, and a bag of her remaining cash, harboring vague ideas to end things there.
French Exit could be described as a depressive farce, though it’s never all that funny or moving. It aims for a slack, Wes Anderson–style melancholy and achieves it in scenes like the one in which Malcolm’s frustrated fiancée, Susan (Imogen Poots), has to extract a breakup from the information that he’s moving to Europe indefinitely, or like the ones in which a colorful assortment of characters starts to accrue in the apartment where he and Frances are staying. But director Azazel Jacobs, working with a script Patrick deWitt adapted from his own 2018 novel, can’t quite commit to this tone of muted whimsy, and he sometimes seems downright impatient with it. Pfeiffer too is prone to ripping right through the delicate mood the film aspires to and ends up somewhere darker and more grounded. Her embittered, mordant performance simultaneously makes and ruins French Exit, overpowering everything else onscreen while being the only thing really worth watching. Or almost the only thing — an exception should be made for Valerie Mahaffey, who plays Mme. Reynard, a lonely expat widow who takes it upon herself to invite Frances and Malcolm over for dinner when she learns they’re in town. She doesn’t actually know Frances but saw her once in a restaurant being confronted by a man who loathed her husband. “You didn’t say a word,” Mme. Reynard recalls with wistful pathos. “You drank his drink, straight scotch, and you stared at him with a look of absolute indifference.”
It’s a good story, one you may wish were rendered onscreen instead of recounted. If the idea of French Exit is that it’s a wry coda to a singular life, its effect is to leave you feeling, like Frances, that things would be better if you could turn back to her glory days. There’s another tantalizing scene in which, shortly after their arrival in Paris, she and Malcolm struggle to get the check in a café with bad food and indifferent service. Frances stares at the waiter as he goes out for a smoke instead of assisting them, and the camera catches a glimpse of anticipatory delight on Malcolm’s face that suggests how often he has been in this moment before and how much he still enjoys it. Frances coolly sprays the table’s centerpiece with perfume, then lights it on fire, sending every employee in the restaurant scrambling and shouting about her insanity. It’s understandable, in that moment, why Malcolm has remained in his mother’s thrall and why he has had trouble launching his own life. It’s less clear why the movie needs to spend time on him — which isn’t really the fault of Hedges, who for the second time in less than a year is playing a shiftless relative accompanying an older, wealthier woman on a transatlantic crossing. The movie is filled with characters and ideas that sound as though they would be effervescently charming — like the cat, which turns out to house the soul of Frances’s husband (voiced by Tracy Letts). Danielle Macdonald plays a too-honest psychic who tells people they’re going to die, while the legendary Isaach De Bankolé turns up as an unflappable detective. But somehow these elements just fall flat.
Jacobs, the son of the great experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs, has spent most of his career navigating unexpected tonal combinations in his work. His last feature, the underseen 2017 romance The Lovers, gave a lushly cinematic gloss to the story of a couple on the verge of divorce living in the most mundane of Southern California suburbs. It coaxed wonderful performances from Letts and Debra Winger, and Pfeiffer is equally good here, but she and Jacobs feel mildly dissatisfied with the material they’re working from. The effect does match the mood of the characters, though: Watching the movie summons the distinct sensation of arriving at a party just as the guests are starting to leave.