Michelle Pfeiffer is a skilled actress and always worth watching. Her unique roles and her comedic ability usually make for an entertaining film. In addition, the premise of French Exit a surreal comedy based on the novel of the same name by Patrick DeWitt sounded witty and intriguing. With shining performances and quirky characters, the film builds the surreal nature and absurdity of life into every scene but with mixed results due to pacing and a lack of cohesion to the story.
French Exit directed by Azazel Jacobs with the screenplay written by Patrick DeWitt tells the story of a widow, Frances (Michelle Pfeiffer) who after having lost most of her husband’s fortune, decides to move to France with her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) and her cat, who happens to be her reincarnated husband. Along the way, Frances encounters friends and strangers who impact her, including her friend, Joan (Susan Coyne) who provides her apartment for the pair to live in, a medium Madeleine (Danielle Macdonald), a fan Mme Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey), and Malcolm’s fiance, Susan (Imogen Poots). But these individuals ultimately cannot provide Frances with answers, only she can discover what truly matters to her, including her own life.
One of the strengths of the film is the surreal sensibility built into the story. Every scene questions our life choices, the impact that individuals have on us, and just the general absurdity of life, all the quirky coincidences and strange events that happen in a lifetime. Frances is painted as a free spirit, someone who lives for the moment, but eventually, her money runs out, despite her unwillingness to accept fate. Her choices, from taking a boat to France, to dropping huge amounts of her remaining cash on food and drinks, have a strange purpose. Frances encourages her son to be with her but encourages him to make peace with his memories of his father. Her behavior is odd, including holding a seance to talk with her cat when he goes missing and making friends with random people. Her behavior and Malcolm builds a series of humorous events and absurdly comedic moments that make you laugh out loud, especially the conversations with little Frank, the cat.
Within the humor is insight about life, including the choices that each of us makes. One person may love being married while another is stifled by the relationship, another hates being a father and another discovers that she loves being a mother. The discussions that happen within the film between Frances and her son are a beautiful exploration of the nature of love between a mother and son, despite being separated for half of Malcolm’s life while he was in boarding school. It also questions life and death, including the choice to continue or end life as Frances questions her own willingness to go on. While the ending is nebulous and open-ended, that only lends itself to that discussion. This film, more than many others, is a discussion between the writer and the audience, asking us questions for us to ponder, including the existence of life after death.
The performances are brilliant, in particular Michelle Pfeiffer. She embodies her unusual character with wit, charm, and humor. Her acerbic dialogue heightens her portrayal and the sense of ennui that character seems to exude. Even as she seems tired of life, though, her dynamic with Lucas Hedges resonates with love and emotion as the pair’s chemistry allows for poignancy and caring. Lucas Hedges is charming as Malcolm but he also portrays the character as odd and quirky as his mother. His relationships are unusual including his willingness to leave his fiance in America but there is charm between him and Imogen Potts who portrays Susan. Their relationship is strange but is believable. Danielle Macdonald as Madeleine is quirky and honest in her performance and Valerie Mahaffey as Mme Reynard is absolutely hilarious. Susan Coyne is warm and caring in her performance as Frances’ friend Joan, a contrast to Frances’ quirkiness.
Where the film is flawed is in the pacing and the lack of cohesion. There are moments within the story where it is a struggle to make sense of the point of the film. Eventually, you realize that it is meant to be a poignant and surreal look at the absurdity of life. However, the beginning starts out without enough explanation, the film moves slowly throughout the middle section and it is only toward the end, that the ideas gel and culminate into surreal humor. The unevenness of the pacing detracts from the charm of the movie. Thankfully, the charm of the cat and the humor embodied by both Frances and Mme Reynard brings a lightness to the story and saves the movie from being static. The cat absolutely steals the show even from Michelle Pfeiffer.
If you love Michelle Pfeiffer, if you like films that explore life and the absurd moments of life, this film might charm you. As I said, the cat is adorable. The performances are outstanding and certain scenes are completely zany. Even in the slow scenes, there are the poignant performances of Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges. The ending is offbeat and is sublime. While I would have liked a more cohesive plot, I thoroughly enjoyed the humor, wit, and charm of the actors and humor.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 absurd moments.