THREE AND A HALF STARS To avoid the scrutiny of being broke in Manhattan, Frances moves her life, her son and her cat to Paris.
COMEDY DRAMA US #FRENCHEXIT
Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges
If you were a New York socialite who runs out of money, what would you do? Move to Paris, obviously. Doesn’t everyone, darling? Therein the backbone of this occasionally biting and frequently funny satire of America’s worthless, monied classes that packs more than enough pathos and comedy to get you through the film’s less confident moments.
Frances Price (a gorgeously refined Michelle Pfeiffer who delivers a performance, some say one of her best, dripping in martinis, pursed lips and piercing one-liners) has spent all of her late husband’s cash. Her plan, such as it was, relied on death beating the bankers. However, as Frances tells a friend in a moment pregnant with self-awareness and acute disappointment, ‘I kept and keep, not dying’. So she sells the Manhattan home, packs her bags, her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) and their cat, Small Frank and boards a ship bound for Europe.
Once he’s installed them in a close friend’s Parisian flat, screenwriter Patrick DeWitt (adapting his own novel) turns up the absurdist heat, filling Frances’s life and the apartment with a needy widow (a scene-stealing turn by Valarie Mahaffey), a young clairvoyant, a private detective, Malcom’s fiancée, her own fiancé plus the owner of the flat as well as Frances's late husband whose spirit now communicates through Small Frank. Crowded house indeed.
There’s a touch of Wes Anderson about the arch, ensemble nature of these compelling misadventures yet it’s less formal, less stylised. Director Azazel Jacobs (THE LOVERS) places them in a dour but recognisable world, Paris in winter, a grey, claustrophobic setting far from the hyper-touristy and cheerily-optimistic city of lights. In bright contrast to this heavy background is the penetrating wit of Frances as she grows into the doomed heroine she has convinced herself she is. It would be little without Pfeiffer and Mahaffey who keep all the comedic balls bouncing as DeWitt ruminates on connection, position, value, loss and death. You know, the small stuff.
At its best, FRENCH EXIT is exhilarating. Often however, it becomes distracted by moments (in turn agreeable, hilarious and poignant moments) that compromise the narrative. A thinness in plotting, purpose and notably in Malcolm whose unwarranted yet undeniable faith in his mother is left hanging, undercuts our expectation. The variable tone blunts its satirical knife. And because these matters are never satisfyingly addressed, punches are pulled for want of a target on which to land.
Despite these misgivings and the cloying artificiality in which DeWitt pressure-cooks his characters (you’ll love it or hate it), FRENCH EXIT is an emotive ride from domestic drama through satire and absurdism that lands in a bright, warm soup of human foibles and failures, stirred by the overwhelming self-indulgence of Pfeiffer’s Frances Price. That may not sound very appealing but actually it is, it really is.