In 2017, Azazel Jacobs delivered a poignant and illuminating look at the peculiarities of life with his film The Lovers. He aims to achieve the same with his 2020 follow-up, French Exit, but while the absurd class satire is funny at times, it never goes far enough with the ridiculousness that’s promised and instead leans on its lesser qualities.
Adapted by Patrick DeWitt from his own best-selling novel, French Exit follows New York socialite Frances Price (Michelle Pfeiffer), her childish adult son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), and their extraordinary cat, Small Frank, as they rush off to Paris upon learning they’re broke. Twenty years earlier, Frances’ husband, Frank (Tracy Letts), died and left the family a fortune, but Frances paid no mind to that money’s end.
Despite finding out she has lost her wealth, Frances still spares no expense on her travels to her friend’s empty apartment awaiting them overseas. She and Malcolm embark on a luxury cruise ship, and as they float through a series of outlandish events, mother and son must come to terms with a past that has led to their unfulfilling and directionless lives.
French Exit begins with a flashback showing Frances’ first real attempt at a relationship with an adolescent Malcolm. It’s an effort that’s twelve years too late, but as she abruptly pulls him out of boarding school, he doesn’t question her sudden decision to be a proper mother. She speaks to him like he’s an adult and asks about his experience in school like he’s old enough to have an eloquent opinion on it. He gives a shrug of an answer, and she ushers him out the door into his new life under his mother’s wing.
Frances exhibits the same boldness decades later, in the present, even as she is being told she has finally run out of their inheritance. She had been warned this would happen, but she’s not the type of woman who acts sensibly. “My plan was to die before the money ran out, but I kept — and keep — not dying,” she laments when she is told to sell all her things and find a new way to live. It’s clear she has no plans of changing her opulent ways and is willing to die rather than do so.
Malcolm, meanwhile, is just as unsure of his own wants and needs as he was when he was twelve, even within his engagement to the lovely Susan (Imogen Poots). He delays telling his mother about their relationship and their plans to be married. Frances beats him to the punch with her own revelation that they are going to live in Paris, and Malcolm completely forgets he had news of his own. He never questions whether or not he needs to join his mother; he just idly goes along with her.
The voyage to Paris offers mildly entertaining scenes in which Frances and Malcolm show just how out of touch they are with the reality of the situation. They encounter odd characters, including a clairvoyant (Danielle Macdonald) who is apprehended for predicting an old woman’s death (which obviously makes her appear complicit) and an uncaring coroner dealing with all of the bodies of the old folks who die on the cruise ship (his scene plays particularly uncomfortably due to the imagery of the COVOD-19 pandemic losses). At times, the coming together of such variant personalities makes for some good laughs, but the awkward and quirky vibe that these scenes try to achieve only delays the most interesting aspect of the film.
French Exit is best when it embraces its surreal side and pushes the story outside of the realm of a regular drama, rather than commenting on the lives of its upper-class characters. Most notably, Small Frank is eventually revealed to be a telepathic cat (also voiced by Letts) housing the reincarnated spirit of the late Frank Price. Unfortunately, the film holds back on this bizarre development.
The film’s other asset is Pfeiffer’s captivating performance. She delivers Frances’ unfiltered thoughts in the sort of unbothered tone needed for the character to be funny. And there are even moments when the actress hints at a bit of humanity left in Frances, even if the woman within the story does not recognize it herself.
During a flashback to the day on which she found her husband, Frances talks about how she couldn’t face his death at that moment. She felt hopeless and ran away from it, making it appear to police that she was complicit in his death. This is the only moment in French Exit when Frances shows any concern for her emotions. Even though she is uncaring and detached most of the film, Pfeiffer’s performance makes her seem almost redeemable.
Comparatively, Malcolm, who is there to give to her every whim, despite there never being a good explanation for why he is so hopelessly devoted to her, becomes a dull addition to every scene that he’s in, even with Hedges behind the role. The weird characters the two meet on the journey to Paris are also never given the opportunity to truly make a difference in the plot since they cannot get in the way of Frances’ spot at center stage. Pfeiffer’s work is impressive, but the sacrifices that the film makes to enable that performance inhibit our appreciation of her role.
This is because, in order to provide Pfeiffer such a prestigious starring role, the filmmakers allow Frances to continually upstage everyone else she shares a scene with, her unwavering pride never challenged until the very end. The character is allowed to be a brash and commanding force, which Pfeiffer embodies very well. Without anything in the way of that, though, it’s hard to find the point of her story.
The biggest problem I have with French Exist, however, is that seeing how bereft wealthy people are of consequences just doesn’t feel all that funny right now, in 2020. We see this played out every day in the news. Maybe there are other people who can connect with a nihilistic view of society at the moment, though. After all, there can be some value in being able to laugh at those who have power.
It does feel like this film could be more enjoyable in another social climate, and that isn’t its fault. Yet, to laugh at how these rich, callous characters treat the people around them, and how they get away with it, feels like a surrendering of your own conscience. That is something that I can’t see myself able to do at any time in history.