Michelle Pfeiffer in “French Exit” is “upset in a general sense”, and gloriously
She plays Frances Price, a New York socialite and a resident of the most rarefied strata of Manhattan society. She seems to have been the type of legendary beauty who didn’t have to work hard at anything; who got married rich to a bully who died and left her with a son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), with whom she lives in a Park Avenue apartment that looks like a mausoleum. Frances is jaded, cool, witty and bored. Maybe a little crazy. And broke, we learn in an early scene, her private banker giving her the news as if explaining exactly how money works. (She calls him “my little pig,” which he takes as a compliment until an assistant tells him that means “my little pig”.)
An old friend – Susan Coyne as Joan, the healthiest person in the film – lends Frances her Paris apartment as a safe haven, which she and Malcolm repair with a dwindling stock of euros. The son, a barely trained adult who appears to be a refugee from a JD Salinger story, leaves behind a tired fiancee, Susan (Imogen Poots), but wooes an angry professional clairvoyant, Madeleine (Danielle Macdonald of “Patti Cake $ “), when crossing the Atlantic. Because of course Frances would go by boat.
“French Exit” allows Pfeiffer to play freely, and his performance is glorious in a major tone of contemptuous pitch and a minor tone of self-pity. Frances is a sort of pissed off Aunt Mame, addicted to malicious games when the little people aren’t behaving. A waiter is late in delivering the check? All right, she’ll set the flower arrangement on fire. What keeps the character from becoming obnoxious is the royalty with which the actress plays her and the melancholy that one sees behind the detachment of a diva. “I upset your mother,” someone says to Malcolm, who responds, apologetically, “She is upset in the general sense.”
Jacobs, the son of experimental film legend Ken Jacobs, makes slow-motion comedies about people who are uncomfortable in their skin: A Mature Man Who Cannot Leave His Parents’ House in “Momma’s Man” (2008 ), a bitter married couple who start cheating on their lovers with each other in “The Lovers” (2017). Here, he lets screenwriter Patrick DeWitt adapt his own novel, gradually filling the screen as Frances’ Paris apartment begins to fill with people. A nervous little debauchery, in awe of this dean and happy to be her friend, settles down more or less – Valérie Mahaffey is a burlesque delight in the role – then the clairvoyant, then a tongue-in-cheek private detective (Isaach de Bankolé), then the fiancée and her new fiancé (Daniel di Tomasso), and finally the place is as crowded as the cabin in “A night at the opera”. Yet Frances retains her life reserve, as if she is simply breathing oxygen unlike any other.
“French Exit” gets wacky at times, enough that you’re charmed or put your hands up and call it a night. One session evokes the spirit of the late husband – annoyed at being disturbed and speaking in the voice of actress playwright Tracy Letts – and there’s a secret about Frances’ cat that you wouldn’t care if I told you. So I won’t. But Jacobs’ films, while not for everyone, have a rare generosity and awareness of the endless ways in which life can disappoint us while surprising us every day. And in Frances Price, he and his star create an unforgettable heroine: a prima donna stubbornly keeping her chin above the water while waiting for the ship to sink.
Directed by Azazel Jacobs. Written by Patrick DeWitt, from his book. With Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges, Valerie Mahaffey. In Kendall Square, Boston Common, suburb. R (language, sexual references).