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French Exit @New York Film Festival Reviews | October 2020

French Exit @New York Film Festival Reviews | October 2020

Rave Reviews for Michelle Pfeiffer’s new movie “French Exit”!

Finally, French Exit had its premiere at the 58th New York Film Festival on October 10, 2020 as the closing night selection. And tons of good reviews on Pfeiffer’s performance by critics were published all over the internet at the same time once the screening has started.

The Azazel Jacobs directed new movie “French Exit” is based on the same title novel by Canadian novelist Patrick deWitt, starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges, Danielle Macdonald, Valerie Mahaffey with Tracy Letts as the voice of the cat.

Here below are some of the coolest reviews from the critics:


‘French Exit’ Film Review: Michelle Pfeiffer Brings Life to Eccentric Black Comedy

| Steve Pond

NYFF 2020: Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges star in Azazel Jacobs film that undercuts its polished stateliness with quiet dark humor

“French Exit,” which closed the (mostly virtual) 2020 New York Film Festival on Saturday, takes a lot of cues from its lead character — an eccentric, rich widow played with delicious zeal by Michelle Pfeiffer. The look is elegant and classy, but underneath things get pretty dark and twisted.

Still, the film wears its weirdness more lightly than the character. Frances Price (Pfeiffer) may be defiantly unconventional, thumbing her nose at social norms and the usual modes of parenting, but the movie tries to be dark and odd in a more beguiling way; it undercuts its polished stateliness with quiet black humor, though in the process it sometimes struggles to find the right tone for its polished, deadpan fatalism.

The result is a showcase for Pfeiffer’s sly but all-consuming embrace of a woman barely able to give a moment’s thought to anybody but herself, and one who surrounds herself with a motley collection of oddballs and misfits, all of whom seem to speak a little more formally than the situation calls for.

“I don’t like these people,” says one character after spending a bit too long in Frances’ parlor. “They’re not normal people!”

He’s right, of course — they’re not normal people. But they are fun to be around, in an exasperating kind of way.

“French Exit” was directed by Azazel Jacobs (“Momma’s Man,” “The Lovers”) and adapted by Patrick deWitt from his 2018 novel. It begins in flashback, with Frances showing up at the boarding school where she’s stashed her son, Malcolm. He’s only about 12, but she seems determined to take him out of school for good. “What about my clothes?” he says as they head for the door. “I’ll buy you new clothes,” she says.

Her husband, it seems, has recently died: Frances discovered his body as she prepared to leave New York for a long weekend in Vail, but didn’t tell anybody because she didn’t want to miss her vacation and figured he’d still be there when he got back. That landed her in jail briefly, but now she’s out, she has a huge inheritance, and she’s finally ready to have Malcolm in her life.

One scene later, 20-odd years have passed and Malcolm (now played by Lucas Hedges) is an odd duck himself: he’s stilted and formal, but also so passive and weary that he’s afraid to tell mom that he’s engaged. He may be in his 30s, but he follows behind her as dutifully as the kid who walked out of school with her two decades earlier.

And following her means moving to Paris. Frances, it seems, has burned through her entire inheritance, which isn’t hard because she spends freely and hasn’t worked a day in her life. An accountant tells her that her only choice is to quietly sell off all the art, furniture, jewelry and clothes she owns, take the proceeds in cash and start over. She reluctantly agrees, though it doesn’t fit at all with her plan — which was, she says, “to die before the money ran out.”

So Frances and Malcolm get on a cruise ship and head to France, leaving his fiancé behind but taking along a cat, Small Frank, who they’re sure contains the soul of her late husband. (Spoiler alert: They’re right.)

With the cat, a friend or two and an ever-dwindling stack of cash, Frances and Malcolm live a Parisian life of aimless extravagance, though that takes a hit when Small Frank runs away amid intimations that Frances may have a darker plan in mind. This brings in a private detective, a fortuneteller and the voice of Tracy Letts as Small Frank — and while the wilder, more absurdist elements push the film in the direction of farce, those lighter touches sometimes struggle to register as the film itself grows darker and sadder.

But that’s the tricky balance Jacobs is trying to achieve in a classy chamber comedy that enjoys flirting with unpleasant black humor. It’s always watchable when Pfeiffer is around to delight in overplaying Frances’ imperious theatrical grandiosity, and Hedges has long been good at playing characters who have a kind of interesting passivity.

The weirdness is always given elegant settings, and it plays out to a musical score that occasionally tries to make you think the film is lighter and funnier than it is. But maybe that’s the point: “French Exit” walks an uneasy line between darkness and light, elegance and eccentricity, delicious humor and disturbing tragedy.

These are not normal people, and this is not a normal film. But Pfeiffer makes it an odd, enjoyably twisty ride.


You’ll Like My Mother: Jacobs Finds Pfeiffer in Eccentric Dangerous Liaison

| Nicholas Bell

Director Azazel Jacobs presents his most lavish offering to date with fourth feature French Exit, adapted from the celebrated novel by Patrick DeWitt (The Sisters Brothers). Recalling the slapstick ensemble comedies of the 1930s and 40s, where zippy dialogue skittered across zany scenarios littered with kooky characters, there’s much to admire in this offbeat black comic romp gilded with sinister undertones of familial dysfunction. Much like DeWitt’s novel, everything is eclipsed in the wake of its troubled heroine, Frances Price, here brought to life by a ferociously primed Michelle Pfeiffer who ruefully devours the narrative energies like an apex predator who can’t help but simply exist as the fabulous anomaly she is. Jacobs stays true to the spirit of DeWitt’s text, arguably even tempering it a bit for levity and poignancy, preferring a poetic ambiguity over the absolute finality of the novel’s conclusion. Still, there’s no denying the wattage of Pfeiffer in what stands as not only a highlight from an iconic career but a reminder of the lack of cinematic material showcasing the talents of women post-ingenue phase.

Widowed New York socialite Frances Price (Pfeiffer) has managed to spend her entire inherited fortune. Facing eviction from her luxurious New York apartment, where she lives with her aimless but doting son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), she manages to discreetly sell her remaining objects while her best friend Joan (Susan Coyne) offers an empty Parisian flat to house her friend free of charge. The fall from grace for Frances is significant, already a social pariah due to the scandal which saw her leave dead husband Franklin (Tracy Letts), an infamously aggressive lawyer, alone to bloat in the apartment while she went off an a skiing trip. It was also the incident which saw her take Malcolm out of his private boarding school when he was a teenager. Prior to this exchange, he had no personal relationship with either parent, which suggests the reason for his reluctance at leaving his mother behind at the insistence of fiancée Susan (Imogen Poots). Off to Paris they go with their black cat Franklin (a creature Frances believes is inhabited by her dead husband), and as Frances mysteriously continues to unload what little chunk of change they have left, the two of them begin to amass a small band of unique acquaintances.

Pfeiffer has been an infrequent cinematic presence until recently, populating studio property like Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (2019) and Branagh’s remount of Murder on the Orient Express (2017). She’s also headlined some phenomenal indie cinema, especially Andrew Dosunmu’s Where is Kyra? (2017), a deliciously dark character drama which premiered at Sundance hobbled by impatient reactions with what stands as an arthouse effort worthy of Antonioni. She’s the beating, black heart of French Exit, which isn’t so much venomous but rather an unhinged revitalization of something like Auntie Mame (1958).

On the page, some of the mounting quirkiness tends to play a little bit better, which on film requires a sort of Howard Hawksian energy to really work. At times, Jacobs does land on this, particularly with the introduction of Valerie Mchaffrey as Madame Reynard, the melancholic but dotty ex-pat widow who gloms onto the Prices. Danielle Macdonald is interesting casting as the glum medium Madeleine, and Isaach de Bankole is always a bright spot, though he’s saddled with the least developed character from the text as the last minute addition to a motely, disparate crew as a French P.I..

The glaring hole of DeWitt’s text becomes insistently unavoidable here, which is, of course, the rather nebulous characterization of Malcolm, here characterized by a shaggy-haired Lucas Hedges. His tangential strife with the equally unattenuated Susan, embodied by Imogen Poots to the best of her ability, either requires zesty characterization (think Cary Grant and his fiancée in 1938’s Bringing Up Baby thwarted by the captivating intensity of Katharine Hepburn) or more concrete (and, therefore, serious) examination. At the same time, Malcolm’s arrested development, courtesy of his own awestruck feelings for his mother, would have been much more interesting if he’d initially been penned as a young gay man—at least this would’ve provided more unexpected energies than the same heteronormative trajectory which is what drags down a Malcolm and a Susan into predictable approximations.

Jacobs utilizes the elocution of the priceless Tracy Letts (who starred in his previous film, the excellent and underrated 2017 title The Lovers – read ) as talking-cat Franklin, who speaks through the interface of the medium to reveal the real weirdness of French Exit, which could have also been pressed more perversely. Jacobs, perhaps due to running time, excises the best portion from the novel highlighting the ensemble, when each of them goes around the room sharing strange instances from each of their pasts.

Shot by Tobias Datum (also The Lovers), its an autumnal portrait of New York and Paris, eternal cities of magic possibility and sordid realities, the juxtaposition of which provides Francis with her saving grace, doling out her fortunes to homeless men whose struggles move her. A dying universe of missed opportunities floating on elitist comforts, Pfeiffer’s oscillations between amusement and ever frequent disinterest embodies her Frances Price with a fiery contempt, almost enough to overlook any other potential shortcomings of the narrative. In essence, her Price is right, from every eye roll and cheek bite to every purposefully incendiary, withering statement.

Review on October 10th at the 2020 New York Film Festival – Closing Night Film. 110 Mins.

★★★/☆☆☆☆☆


‘French Exit’ Review: Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges Outshine a Sleepy Transatlantic Satire

| David Ehrlich

NYFF: This thin farce is worth it for Michelle Pfeiffer, who splits the difference between Selena Kyle and “The Real Housewives of New York.”

Frances Price has a problem. It’s not that she doesn’t have any friends, or that she’s wasted most of the 12 years since she’s been widowed, or that her adult son Malcolm is as much of a dilettante at 20-something as she is at 65 — all of those things are true, but they don’t seem to bother her very much (besides, Frances’ late and loaded husband appears to have reincarnated as a black cat she calls Small Frank). No, Frances’ problem is that an infamous socialite like her can’t afford to be poor. “My plan was to die before the money ran out,” she announces at the top of a low-key farce about her final adventure, “but I kept and keep on not dying, and here I am.”

Death is always just a few dollars away in the wry and beguiling “,” a musty tragedy of manners that director Azazel Jacobs and his longtime friend/sometime collaborator Patrick DeWitt have adapted from the latter’s novel of the same name. For Frances — who a serrated  plays like an intoxicating cross between Selina Kyle and Luann de Lesseps — the dwindling stacks of cash in her bedroom closet are the last grains of sand in an hourglass turned upside down more than a decade ago, when Big Frank died and she pulled Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) out of boarding school because she needed someone new to love her. Imminently penniless, Frances decides that she and her doting son and the family cat who may or may not house the spirit of her long-deceased husband will make a break for it: They’ll convert the money they have left to euros, sail on a tacky cruise ship across the Atlantic, and hole up in a borrowed Paris apartment until spent dry.

So begins a sleepy, gray Sunday afternoon of a movie that feels like a hyper-literate Aki Kaurismäki comedy one minute, and the silliest thing that Whit Stillman never made the next. Its best stretches invariably split the difference, such as the cold-as-dry-ice bit where Frances and Malcolm discover that cruise ship morgues are a lot busier than you’d imagine. The rest of it is watched with a blank stare. The unfussy approach that Jacobs honed with the likes of “Terri” and “The Lovers” is a peculiar fit for this material: On the one hand, Jacobs’ refusal to heighten the film to meet its characters at their level tends to suffocate the well-postured screwball energy percolating just below the surface, and keeps “French Exit” from becoming a more animated farce. On the other, it creates a world almost as blithely indifferent to Frances and Malcolm as they are to it in return.

These people are out of step with reality, but just by a toe-length or two, and if this eccentric family portrait often seems poised to stiffen into a less symmetrical relative of “The Royal Tenenbaums,” even the more explicitly surreal moments in its second half keep one foot on the ground at all times. The result is an anodyne if increasingly tender little film that would have been lost in its own lineage if not for the strength of its cast.

For a movie about someone trying to make their escape (from New York, from themselves, from this mortal coil), “French Exit” is never in a hurry to get anywhere, but Pfeiffer’s lush and crumbling turn always gives it a sense of direction. Her Frances is like an old bird of paradise who’s spent its entire life in a mahogany cage, and suddenly has to migrate halfway across the world to die in style. She’s an endangered species of Manhattan socialite — one trapped inside an echo chamber that’s small enough to feel like a coffin — and even the untrained eye could identify her kind from a mile away as she swanned up Central Park West.

Frances has never aspired to be anything more than a cliché (“people tell it, not so many live it” she boastfully coos), and there’s a poignant comic perfection to the way that Pfeiffer always listens for how Frances sounds to herself. She laces every line with the nausea of hearing your own voice come through on the other end of an important phone call, and the woozy film around her feels like it has some kind of middle ear problem as a result. “My life has fallen completely to pieces and I’m upset about it,” she declares at one point like an actor who accidentally says the stage direction out loud.

Malcolm is the only person who doesn’t bat an eye at his mom, and Hedges’ subdued but strikingly thoughtful performance is anchored in a place of almost complete acceptance; “French Exit” is always at least a little intriguing when he and Pfeiffer are onscreen together. There may be private moments where Malcolm has his doubts — it’s always weird to find your mom sharpening her steak knives in the middle of the night! — made more touching when the pair become a united front in public. One especially off-kilter scene finds Frances encountering a homeless man in the park one night (she has a curious thing for homeless people, it turns out), and the way that Malcolm stands behind her in a stoic pose of absolute support is such a pure display of a son’s love for his mother that it almost borders on the perverse.

“French Exit” powers its way across the ocean on the friction it creates between the enviable nature of their “I want what they have” relationship, and the nagging sense that Frances needs to let Malcolm out of her shadow. The kid doesn’t even bat an eye when his mom tells him he needs to ditch his new fiancé in Manhattan (Imogen Poots winches the movie together as the jilted Susan, displaying that same gift for straight-faced satire that once saved Peter Bogdanovich’s “She’s Funny that Way” from itself).

Once Frances and Malcolm arrive in Paris, they acquire an eclectic menagerie of new friends as they back into a fable-like story about the pricelessness of the company we keep. Danielle Macdonald has some droll fun as a blunt and horny cruise ship psychic who refuses to sugarcoat the truth of her readings. Valerie Mahaffey is spectacular and hilarious (in Jacobs’ light chuckle of a comic register) as a lonely widow who keeps a dildo in her freezer and is committed to making the best of things no matter what. Meanwhile, the great Isaac de Bankolé is a reliably warm presence that helps unmoor this movie from the real world in a final act that approaches the “love is all you need” ethos of something like “Paddington 2” (a vibe that only grows stronger when Small Frank starts talking in Tracy Letts’ voice during a handful of séances). DeWitt’s insistence that money does more to keep people apart than bring them together is soft enough to fringe the movie like silky window dressing, but the last stretch of “French Exit” still resolves into a rather unambiguous fantasy about the kinds of families people might be able to make for themselves if the world revolved around a different kind of currency.

That reading might seem like more of a reach in the movie than it does in the book (despite DeWitt writing both), but Jacobs doesn’t give us much else to hold on to. For all of its touching moments — and a series of closing grace notes that shimmer with a mystical flair missing from the rest of the film — this gossamer-thin adaptation is hampered by the same ambivalence that’s haunted Frances for so long. We come to like these people, but we’re not quite invited to join them. It’s never been nicer to watch a movie about people making the best of things, but “French Exit” is too aloof to meaningfully engage with how these characters better themselves on their way out the door.

Grade: B-

“French Exit” premiered at the 2020 New York Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics will release it in theaters on February 12, 2021.


JOSHUA REVIEWS AZAZEL JACOBS’ FRENCH EXIT [NYFF 2020]

| Joshua Brunsting

As the New York Film Festival comes to a close, the festival does so with one of the handful of world premieres lined up for this year’s slate, and one of the more anticipated ones at that.

From The Lovers director Azazel Jacobs comes French Exit, based on the beloved hit novel of the same name from author Patrick deWitt. The film stars Michelle Pfeiffer as Frances Price, a mid-60s New York socialite who, years after the passing of her husband, finally burns through her savings and takes her and her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) to Paris with little intent beyond making the most of what may or may not be her final days.

A deadpan and properly arch Whit Stillman-like 1%-er melodrama, French Exit doesn’t luxuriate in the posh upper-crust world Frances and her son maneuver, instead spinning a slyly absurdist yarn about loss and grief set among a world of characters that feel more at home in a Wes Anderson drama than anything remotely resembling the neo-realist sentimentality that one would expect in a film of this ilk. This is a story of a snobbish mother caught at the end of her wits and her wallet, alone in a world without her partner and a son that, based on one of the better scenes in the film, is on the brink of potentially leaving the proverbial nest for good. Closer in tone and atmosphere to screwball comedies than anything like a typical familial drama, French Exit completely jettisons any idea of portraying a “real” world once they land in France, and subsequently task a private investigator to get in touch with a fortune teller that Malcolm had a brief affair with on the boat ride across the ocean. In doing so a seance is had, and the film turns from a simple absurdist dark comedy into something far more surreal, and ultimately far more moving.

The triumph of this film is Pfeiffer’s lead performance. Her handling of the Jacobs and deWitt-penned screenplay is utterly incredible, beautifully embodying the bleak worldview and sharp-tongued wit as something less than a sense of self-assurance than a literal shield against a stark sense of loneliness that pervades the entire picture. It’s not a quiet or textured performance, instead playing to the theatricality of the universe her character lives in, yet never losing sight of the, maybe deeply-seeded, humanity at the core of Frances. Her relationship with Hedges’ Malcolm is also quite moving, with his performance playing rather quiet and lived in compared to Pfeiffer’s fence-swinging turn.

French Exit really comes to life once the pair land in Paris, particularly following their encounter with Mme. Reynard (an incredible Valerie Mahaffey), a woman who doesn’t feel all that far off from our lead matriarch. A mirror image of our increasingly lonely lead, Reynard leans in to her solitude, openly admitting to it and embracing it, in turn extending a hand to the new Parisian mother/son duo. It’s a nuanced balance between the two, particularly as the early interchanges between them are quite ugly, but they begin to soften in intriguing and textured ways. While the film itself does devolve a bit into something a pinch more sentimental and strangely saccharine, French Exit runs a bit long in the tooth but stands as a charismatic and involving familial farce and with a top tier performance from Pfeiffer, becomes in its own way a must see drama.


Michelle Pfeiffer Delivers Oscar-Worthy Performance In Dazzling New York Film Fest Closing-Night Film ‘French Exit’

| Pete Hammond

The New York Film Festival wrapped tonight, and its closing-night film, French Exit, is a winner that firmly places Michelle Pfeiffer, a three-time past nominee, back in the heart of the Best Actress Oscar race. She tops an aces cast that is sublime in every way in an absurdist comedy that is surreal, dark, witty, quirky, humane, and oddly touching. Stylistically it recalls everything from Wes Anderson to Harold And Maude but it sways to its own distinct rhythms. It is a movie its director Azazel Jacobs (The Lovers, Terri) describes as about “a group of lonely people collecting, and becoming less lonely as they find each other”. As audiences find this little gem when Sony Pictures Classics releases it on February 12 (still in time to qualify in this extended awards season), they probably will feel a little bit that way as well. All that said, French Exit likely is not for everyone, but those who embrace its considerable pleasures are in for a special treat.

A big part of the joy for me was the superb ensemble cast including Pfeiffer, gloriously back in a rich leading role that is worthy of her talents, but also terrific performances down the line by a cast offering up bon mots of choice dialogue in perfectly honed deadpan delivery. It all comes from the imagination of novelist Patrick deWitt ( The Sisters Brothers, Terri), who wrote the film adaptation of his widely praised 2018 book — one that on its surface wouldn’t necessarily lend itself to cinema, it might seem, but boy does it ever in the hands of this cast and Jacobs.

Pfeiffer plays Frances Price, a 60ish, once-wealthy Manhattan socialite, widowed for a dozen years, who had planned to “die before my inheritance ran out” but who is told she no longer is solvent. Her life appears to be falling apart until a childhood friend named Joan (Susan Coyne) offers her use of the Paris apartment that has remained empty. Soon she is off on a ship to Paris, with about $200,000 in cash (literally) from what she could get by selling off her NYC possessions, and with her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) and a cat named Small Frank, who, as we later learn, might or might not be the reincarnation of the dead husband Franklin Price. Her son is engaged, or was, to Susan (Imogen Poots), but due to his own stunted emotional growth and connection to his mother, has left her behind, never even having told Frances about an impending marriage.

deWitt builds this surreal world along the way, adding quirky character after character to the mix including another American expatriate living in France who calls herself Mme. Reynaud (a scene-stealing Valerie Mahaffey), and a fortune teller from the cruise ship named Madeleine, deliciously played by Danielle MacDonald (Patti Cake$). She specializes in telling the older customers on the cruise that she sees their death in the near future, and has a quickie with Malcolm after work. When the cat runs away one night, Frances freaks out and wants back the kitty she believes is Franklin. She hires a private detective, Julius (Isaach De Bankolé), to track down the “witch” from the ship in order to materialize the cat/dead hubby for a séance. It gets crazier from there as Susan eventually shows up with a new boyfriend, Tom (Daniel diTomasso), as does Joan, and soon we have a menagerie of disparate souls finding one another through a very weird connection. Underneath the surface, particularly for Frances, are life-and-death issues that all are reflected in darker moments played with humor like no other film I have seen in some time, but one that magically hits just the right tone.

In a virtual NYFF press conference on Friday, the director explained his inspirations for wanting to take on this book. “The humor and humanity of Patrick’s writing drew me in as it has always done, but this particular story is what motivated me,” he said. “I love [Luis] Buñuel. I love Rules of the Game. Stories about class are what draws me in, and when I think about (Jacques Tati’s) Playtime, and The King of Comedy and Trouble In Paradise, and all these films, I recognize in retrospect are all about class, and the idea that there is this sense of theatrics that happen when people get packed in a room at all different levels, kind of socio-economic levels, and what happens when things shift in their lives that is what was a huge attraction as I finished the film – literally this week.”

Pfeiffer said she didn’t even wait to finish reading the French Exit script before signing on. “It is this odd world filled with odd people — as Azazel describes them, people marooned on an island who end up finding each other,” she said Friday. “What could, and in some ways on the page, could be caricaturist is not because both Azazel and Patrick have an ability to bring you into this world, this sort of New York socialite world. You bring them in, and make them three dimensional inside. We are all really living in our own little bubble, and depending what bubble you grew up in, you develop certain survival skills, and they are different depending on what your experience has been. I read the script first and immediately followed up with the novel, and halfway through I said, ‘I’m in,” because you just know when something is really special because it doesn’t come along all that often.” With French Exit, Pfeiffer has reconnected with one of those “really special” roles, maybe her best since the ’90s.

Hedges also knew this was something special. In the book, the son is older, but Jacobs had just seen Hedges on Broadway in The Waverly Gallery and knew he would be right for the role. Hedges reacted to the script right off the top. “I had a very distinct feeling that this was a world I love and a voice I love. I felt that way 10 pages into the script,” he said. “It was clear early on this was completely different. I was really taken by the ways in which the characters thought and spoke. I loved the script, loved this world, I loved the character, I loved Patrick’s imagination, and Azazel is such a generous human and artist. It was just no question.” Hedges noted that before this one came along, his standards for finding good scripts were getting lower and lower.

For a story that has such dark undertones, the comedic aspects really stand out. deWitt said he doesn’t know any other way. “I think of comedy as a coping tool, primarily,” he said. “I tend to tell dramatic stories, but I can’t not tell stories through the lens of the comedic or the ridiculous. It is something I come to without really thinking of it. This is just a way I am inclined to tell stories. It just comes natural.” deWitt admitted that the biggest change from novel to screen was the ending, and that was at the urging of Jacobs. Without giving anything away, it was the right decision, something now deWitt also believes was right.

“It was really trying to find what the ground was in this surreal world, and in this humor, and just make sure these are still breathing humans who are struggling with these issues, even with the humor,” added Jacobs.

Pfeiffer said she had a great time making this one. “I would definitely put it up there, definitely in my top five of wonderful film experiences. The cast was so extraordinary, the writing,” she said. “When you get that kind of writing it starts there. You are not struggling with it. It sort of carries you. You are not having to work it. The concern for me having read the novel, and the script obviously, was that the tone was so specific, and yet really hard to describe, and that was my big concern that this has to be exactly right. It could go wrong so quickly, but I knew Azazel just hit it on the head. We worked hard, as you do when you are doing a smaller independent film on a smaller budget and tight schedule.

Good indeed. And let’s also give a huge shout-out to that cat who plays Small Frank, as well as Tracy Letts, who does his hilarious and droll voice-over. Hopefully release plans hold and the pandemic doesn’t stand in the way of this unique and memorable film getting out there from Sony Classics and Stage 6 Films.

The Lead Actress race is a tough one this year, already looking very competitive, but it is hard to imagine a better performance from a long Oscar-overdue star than what Pfeiffer delivers here. Astonishingly, she hasn’t been Oscar- nominated since 1992’s Love Field, but this might be her best film work since 1989’s The Fabulous Baker Boys. I would also do a shout-out for Mahaffey’s dead-on performance for Supporting Actress, and you’d be hard-pressed to find five better adaptations than what deWitt has done with this screenplay. Thanks to the earlier NYFF premiere of Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks, and now French Exit, this festival showed us that dreary 2020 is good for at least one emerging trend, and that is the welcome addition of some very smart comedies with their own unique voice.


‘French Exit’ Review: Michelle Pfeiffer Makes a Clean Break, Delivering a Role for Which She’ll Be Remembered

| Peter Debruge

A disaffected young man, his larger-than-life mother and their cat quit New York for Paris in this brilliantly absurd high-society satire from ‘Momma’s Man’ director Azazel Jacobs.

Frances Price married well, if one’s notion of success in that department is defined more by financial comfort than by romance. Her marriage wasn’t so much loveless as moneyful, and that arguably works out better for the wealthy Manhattan wife Michelle Pfeiffer so memorably embodies in Azazel Jacobs’ “French Exit,” a sophisticated closing night choice for this year’s virtual-hybrid New York Film Festival, which “The Sisters Brothers” author Patrick deWitt adapted from his own novel.

After the death of her husband — whose corpse she left to rot for several days, giving herself time to take a short ski vacation in Vail, before reporting it to the authorities — Frances pulled her son, Malcolm, out of boarding school, drove him home in her silver Rolls-Royce, and decided to express an interest in his life. “Did you drink to the brink of sound reasoning?” she queries her son (now a sullen young man played by Lucas Hedges) a dozen years later, lobbing the question over breakfast in a formal dining room large enough for at least 10 guests. “Menstruating?” she asks when he fails to offer much of a reply.

That afternoon, Frances’ accountant arrives with bad news: It seems she has exhausted her inheritance. Naturally, she has no plan. “My plan was to die before the money ran out,” Frances says with a nihilistic sigh. “But I kept and keep not dying.” In circles like Frances’, people talk in euphemisms and hypocrisy. Her husband’s death was “untimely,” but in a way, Frances’ is more so in that it hasn’t come soon enough. She has outlived her means, and now she must sell her things and take her cash and her son and her cat to Paris, where one of her few true friends has offered her the use of an apartment. (The cat, whom they’ve named Small Frank, may or may not be possessed by Frances’ late husband.)

If this all sounds too far removed from the reality most of us experience, don’t let that discourage you. Yes, “French Exit” blisters amid the rarefied air of Tom Wolfe or Whit Stillman, but it’s nicely cut with the schadenfreude of “Schitt’s Creek.” Frances is nothing if not a perfect Dorothy Parker character, and in Pfeiffer’s hands — or her clutches, we might say — privilege has seldom seemed so delectable, even as it attempts to make some necessary economies. That means no driver, no maid, no bottomless stock of Champagne. Just imagine the humiliation of having to move to Paris, now that Manhattan has become untenable!

Surely there exists a more serious way to confront the Prices’ situation, but Jacobs and deWitt wisely opt for wry satire instead, delivering to Pfeiffer the role she’s been lacking all these years: not quite a diva, but an elegant, entitled and wickedly articulate socialite. We caught a glimpse of it in “Murder on the Orient Express,” and saw more concentrated camp showcases from her in both “Stardust” and “Batman Returns.” But here’s a character who’s at once larger than life and undeniably, recognizably real, and it’s the way Pfeiffer grounds Frances’ self-absorption in whatever she may have lived before her marriage that earns deWitt’s description of this portrait as “a tragedy of manners.”

When faced with such performances — that is, the thick steak for which an actor’s entire career is made in retrospect to appear like one long appetizer — Oscar prognosticators like to speculate about which scene the Academy will feature as the nominees’ names are read just before opening the envelope. One could choose any page from Pfeiffer’s playbook here, so well-calibrated is every non-lethal squint, smirk or admission (for there are moments of blinding sincerity), though I’m partial to a vignette set in a French restaurant. Malcolm rises and politely asks the waiter for the check, at which point the man, who can’t be bothered, decides to take his cigarette break. Frances eyes him from across the dining room, takes a perfume vial from her purse, spritzes the small bouquet on the table, calmly flicks her cigarette lighter and sets it ablaze.

In that second, as the waiter rushes over to extinguish the fire, it doesn’t matter how one feels about the vast divide between the haves and the have-nots. There’s something undeniably delicious about watching a woman like Frances not give a damn about the rules. Though she’s now down to the very last of her fortune, having liquidated everything for a few stacks of euros, she hasn’t altered her spending habits. Frances still pays for un café with a hundred-euro note, and at one point, quite late in the film, she seems motivated to give away what remains.

DeWitt’s script doesn’t stray far from his novel until the very end, opting to be somewhat coy about Frances’ fate — just as it is about what becomes of the cat, with whom she and Malcolm communicate via a medium (Danielle Macdonald) they encountered on the transatlantic boat trip. The film’s approach is the stronger one, introducing a poignant ambiguity (which can easily be solved by consulting the book, or getting literal about its title). Patrick deWitt’s older brother Nick helps in that department, supplying the simple piano motif that brightens the gloom.

Amid all of this, Malcolm has come across like a bystander to his own life, quietly resentful of the way Frances waited till widowhood to engage as a mother. Having Malcolm around has kept her young, but what does he have to show for it? Here, as in director Jacobs’ “Momma’s Man,” is another adult unable to break the gravitational pull of his mother. Malcolm is engaged but can’t bring himself to tell Frances, and boy, are they surprised when his inexplicably patient fiancée (Imogen Poots) shows up in Paris.

Clearly, Malcolm won’t be able to move on until Frances lets go, and Hedges — who appears sheepish and shaggy-haired here — handles this lack of backbone well. Apathy is often more nuanced than it looks, and Hedges (whose intuition outstrips that of most of the actors his age) has a gift for underplaying complex characters, which is just the right tack to take opposite Pfeiffer’s dominant persona. Hedges hides behind a napkin in one key confrontation, drawing a line between Malcolm’s generation and that of Benjamin Braddock, who dove into the pool to escape the world in “The Graduate.”

So much of “French Exit” borders on farce, especially once mother and son start to fill up the borrowed apartment with an assortment of eccentrics, including Isaach De Bankolé as a private detective and Valerie Mahaffey as especially pathetic fellow widow Mme. Reynard. While unexpected, pathos is perhaps the correct tone for such a group portrait, and Jacobs and deWitt temper the mounting absurdity (which goes as far as featuring Tracy Letts as the voice of Small Frank) with just the right measure of melancholy as Frances burns through her final reserves. Whether drunkenly slinging kitchen knives or soberly putting men in their place, Pfeiffer ensures that audiences won’t soon forget Frances. She comes on strong, makes an impression, and aptly slips away without saying goodbye.


‘French Exit’: Film Review | NYFF 2020

| Jon Frosch

Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges play a mother and son who move to Paris when they run out of money in Azazel Jacobs’ adaptation of the Patrick deWitt novel.

Playing a 65-year-old New York high-society widow who burns through her savings and moves to Paris with her son in Azazel Jacobs’ French Exit, Michelle Pfeiffer sucks the juice from each line like a Louisianan devouring a crawfish. It’s a full-on diva turn — a smorgasbord of side-eye and shade, of lacerating one-liners dispatched between drags on cigarettes and slurps of martinis. Fans of French cinema may feel they’re beholding an American grand dame worthy of comparisons to Isabelle Huppert or Nathalie Baye, while Sex and the City buffs will detect a bit of Kim Cattrall’s indelible vamp Samantha Jones in Pfeiffer’s patrician purr.

But the sense of tremulous vulnerability beneath the campy hauteur — the mix of warmth and cold, softness and steel — is very much the actress’ own. Pfeiffer’s performance in this uneven but charming adaptation of Patrick deWitt’s 2018 novel certainly isn’t her subtlest, but it ranks among her most captivatingly Pfeiffer-ian.

The movie takes a while to catch up to her. It has a lurching first act full of self-conscious archness and stylized deadpan dialogue that play as derivative of better work by Wes Anderson, Whit Stillman or Noah Baumbach. DeWitt — whose novel The Sisters Brothers was brought to the screen by Jacques Audiard in 2018 — is not as sharp a satirist as Stillman or Baumbach, and Jacobs (2019’s ) lacks Anderson’s formalist flair. Moreover, the film feels like it’s missing some crucial connective tissue; the central relationship between Pfeiffer’s infamous socialite Frances Price and her placidly adoring son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) is never persuasively fleshed out. One wonders if useful chunks of the screenplay (by deWitt himself) ended up on the cutting-room floor.

But once it reaches Paris, French Exit settles into a pleasurable absurdist groove, its quaint, hermetic fantasy world — not a cell phone or computer in sight, and characters travel to Europe by cruise liner — populated by secondary figures who push and pull Frances and Malcolm in amusing, sometimes surprising ways.

As he proved in two other sensitive studies of oddballs (his best film, Momma’s Man, and deWitt-scripted follow-up ), Jacobs is a deft commingler of tones and registers; he makes space for both grotesquerie and pathos, and knows how to locate the latter in the former. Here, the director and cast build a mood of disarming madcap silliness, then pierce it with moments of melancholy that temper the quirkitude. It’s a balancing act that French Exit, after wobbling for a while, mostly pulls off.

The movie opens with a flashback of Frances breaking a preteen Malcolm out of boarding school. Cut to 12 years later, when the two are living together in a sprawling Manhattan brownstone. With her impeccable diction and imperious gaze, her sleekly coiffed head of red hair and fur-lined trench coat, Frances is faded uptown glamour personified. She’s still a force of nature, though, and everyone — particularly stoic, stunted prepster Malcolm — bends to her will.

But Frances’ life of cloistered privilege is soon disrupted by an inconvenient reality: She’s broke, having spent almost the entire inheritance left by her late husband (whose body, we learn, Frances found and then abandoned for several days while on a weekend jaunt). As she tells her financial advisor: “My plan was to die before the money ran out, but I kept, and keep, not dying.” Frances decides to sell her remaining assets and flee to Paris, where her best friend Joan (Susan Coyne) has an empty apartment. She brings along the family cat, Small Frank, who hosts the spirit of Frances’ dead spouse (no big deal in the casually surrealist universe of French Exit), Malcolm and some stacks of cash.

Malcolm leaves behind frustrated fiancée Susan (Imogen Poots), who asks him why he’s so blindly devoted to a woman who never made time for him until she was his sole guardian. It’s a fair question. While this introductory chapter of French Exit belabors Frances’ dire financial circumstances, it doesn’t satisfyingly tease out the mother-son dynamic — the closeness and codependency that, ostensibly, are this story’s dysfunctional heart. Is Malcolm’s filial steadfastness rooted in genuine love, or is it a form of Stockholm syndrome? From the start, French Exit — much like a Wes Anderson movie — relies on the viewer accepting the internal logic of the bizarro bubble-world it depicts. But Jacobs and deWitt, at least in the early scenes, don’t make it easy.

On the cruise to Paris, Frances and Malcolm become entangled — in Malcolm’s case, literally — with a medium named Madeleine (Danielle Macdonald, flaunting comic chops after her devastating turn in Netflix’s Unbelievable). Once they settle in the City of Light, their circle expands to include other assorted eccentrics, like lonely, widowed American expat Madame Reynaud (a wonderful Valerie Mahaffey) and soft-spoken detective Julius (Jim Jarmusch regular Isaach De Bankolé).

The scene in which Madame Reynaud hosts Frances and Malcolm for dinner, winning them over (or wearing them down) with her tipsy candor and eagerness to please, is where French Exit begins to hit its stride. Mahaffey spins her character’s hunger for connection into comedy gold, and Frances’ initially grudging, increasingly sincere sympathy for this daffy fellow outsider — alcohol, a common dislike of lamb and a frozen phallus (don’t ask) are involved — is one of the film’s unexpected delights.

From there, French Exit takes a turn toward the more flamboyantly farcical. Small Frank goes missing, Susan shows up with a new beau (Daniel di Tomasso) and a worried Joan arrives to check in on Frances only to find that her apartment has become an epicenter of chaos. Meanwhile, Madeleine returns to lead seances communicating with the escaped Small Frank, who, it turns out (as voiced by Tracy Letts), is pretty nasty — more Behemoth from Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita than Paw-Paw from Miranda July’s The Future, as talking felines go.

The comings and goings, mishaps and misunderstandings, and spurts of slapstick (a bumped head, a punched nose) have a screwball zaniness reminiscent of the bravura Connecticut house sequence in Baumbach’s Mistress America. Jacobs stages it with energy and elegance, his DP Tobias Datum using the wide frame to take in the zigging and zagging and shifting geometry of this makeshift family, then, in quieter moments, pulling us closer to the ever-mesmerizing planes and angles of Pfeiffer’s face.

That face — by turns amused, annoyed, wistful and haunted — is French Exit‘s not-so-secret weapon, and it’s a particular pleasure to watch Pfeiffer play off the terrific Coyne as Frances’ oldest, most trusted confidante. Frances may treat herself like the doomed heroine of a tragicomic fiction — she doesn’t speak so much as proclaim, each grandiloquent utterance swollen with suggestion — but Joan is the one person in the story who doesn’t mythologize her; she calls Frances on her bullshit. Their scenes together hum with affectionate combativeness and a relaxed, rueful intimacy.

Pfeiffer and Hedges also make an appealing pair — and the actor’s line readings are typically smart — but Malcolm is an underwritten character, his motivations hazy and his passivity not especially interesting. A climactic mother-son heart-to-heart seems to be grasping for a gravitas that the film never offers enough context or substance to earn.

And why even reach when the grey-skied, gloomily beautiful backdrop of Paris evokes and expresses the narrative’s underlying sorrow — its preoccupation with death and loss — so eloquently? The capital captured here isn’t the chirpy cartoon of incorrigible French-ness and endless romance posited by Netflix’s current hate-watch sensation Emily in Paris; it’s hushed and mournful, a city of ruminative late nights and bleary-eyed morning-afters.

This is certainly the biggest canvas Jacobs has worked on yet, and, despite the movie’s occasionally grating artificiality, the director succeeds in filling it with his trademark brushstrokes of authentic sweetness and generosity. Frances is larger-than-life, but it’s her all-too-human foibles and idiosyncrasies that make the filmmaker, and us, love her.


“Michelle Pfeiffer, in a performance for the ages, makes an indelible mark. Her Frances is an instant cinematic icon.” French Exit An Unsettling Strangeness Sets In at the NY Film Fest 58

| Frank J. Avella

The most disappointing part of NYFF58 was not the fact that it was forced to move to a mostly virtual format but was the fact that there was an egregious lack of LGBTQ-themed work represented. The only queer film in the 25 films I viewed was Heidi Ewing’s wonderful, “I Carry You with Me,” which I mentioned in my coverage of Weeks One and Two. Come on, Film Society! You can and should do better!

French Exit (Closing Night)

In this very odd and discombobulating year, Azazel Jacob’s delightfully bizarre, yet sublime “French Exit” is exactly the film needed right now. Everything about it is just a bit off, yet somehow hopeful enough. Michelle Pfeiffer dazzles as Frances Price a wealthy, eccentric NY socialite widow who loses her fortune and flees to France with her loyal son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges). They soon find themselves in a series of strange situations and the levels of absurdity rise. “French Exit” is deftly adapted from the best-selling book by Patric deWitt (by deWitt) and directed with great love and care by Jacobs. Pfeiffer and Hedges have perfect mother-son chemistry. Danielle Macdonald, Imogen Poots, Daniel Di Tomasso, Susan Coyne Isaach de Bankolé and the insanely gifted Valerie Mahaffey provide terrific support as does Tracy Letts as the voice of a cat. But it is Pfeiffer, in a performance for the ages, who makes an indelible mark. Her Frances is an instant cinematic icon.


Michelle Pfieffer prowls the upper social echelons of Paris and Manhattan in this trifling take on Patrick DeWitt’s novel.

French Exit – first-look review

| Charles Bramesco

Michelle Pfeiffer moves through Azazel Jacobs’ French Exit like a snow leopard, prowling and snarling and glaring while inclement conditions rage all around her. She plays Frances Price, a recent widow left with a sum of money far too finite to sustain the uptown Manhattan lifestyle to which she’s grown accustomed.

After a friend offers to put her up in a Parisian flat sitting unused – a windfall of privilege straight out of Nora Ephron, and an early hint to the tony pleasures in store – she collects her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) and sets a course for the Old Continent, where she can implode with flair.

She lives in a magnificent downward spiral during her time in the city of lights, burning through her stacked reserves of cash along with the goodwill of the people surrounding her. It’s hard to know whether she’s always been the sort of person who starts a small, controlled fire to get the attention of a waiter ignoring her, or if the death of her husband (Tracy Letts) made her a cattier and more vindictive version of herself.

Either way, she’s a specimen to behold as treats everyone in sight with a delicious contempt, none more so than the lonely neighbour (Valerie Mahaffey) so starved for human contact that she befriends the visibly not-into-it Frances. Pfeiffer makes for a diverting grand dame, to the point that we can see why someone would want to share her presence even as she treats them like merde.

Their odd bond takes up limited space in a plot surprisingly crowded in spite of the low-key vibe Jacobs cultivates. Malcolm has a fiancée back in the States (Imogen Poots), who doesn’t take her deadbeat boyfriend’s sudden disappearance all that well.

A private investigator (Isaach De Bankolé) lands on the Price bankroll, assigned to find the sardonic fortune teller (Danielle Macdonald) that Malcolm ran into on the boat over. She’s the only one capable of communing with Small Frank, the little black cat now acting as a container for the soul of Frances’ late spouse. The leisurely sort of bustle gives the impression of a rather dour farce, in particular when everyone convenes for arguments and party games á la .

The business with the cute kitty speaking in the sonorous tones of Tracy Letts is of a piece with a more general atmosphere of eccentricity, imported as directly as possible from Patrick DeWitt’s source novel. This is one of those movies that announces its literary origins by filling the characters’ mouths with prose airlifted right from the author’s pen, dialogue that in this instance must play much better on the page than aloud.

Every third attempt at some flourishing witticism or poetic profundity lands with a thunk, though that does leave a goodly proportion of hits to misses. (Upon learning that his paramour has gotten engaged to another man, Malcolm deadpans, “You can’t get engaged again. That’s polygamy. That’s illegal. You’ll go to jail.”)

The characters’ speech, an alien’s best attempt to approximate chatter in the English language, stands out as the most distinctive element of what would otherwise be a showcase for the estimable talents of Michelle Pfeiffer. She sells the gravity of her grief and self-destruction, even as it’s situated in a work intent on evoking the feather-lightness of recent Woody Allen in its music, cinematography and general milieu.

The “misbehaviour of the rich and famous” angle made the film a perfect selection to close out the New York Film Festival, but it sells Pfeiffer short. Just as Frances seems stranded in a high-class world pushing her out like a splinter, her bravura performance gets lost in Jacobs’ unmemorable direction.


NYFF 2020 REVIEW: ‘FRENCH EXIT’ PROVIDES MICHELLE PFEIFFER A LONG OVERDUE SHOWCASE

| Alan French

There are some performers that never get their due. For years, Michelle Pfeiffer has been one of them. Despite switching off between critical darlings and populist showcases, Pfeiffer elevated nearly every film for a decade. Just as suddenly as she burst on the screen, she found herself in mediocre films that looked good on paper. Pfeiffer never disappeared, but she never returned to her peak star power. In recent years, the hope for a Pfeiffer resurgence has been palpable in the film world. With French Exit, the wait is over. Pfeiffer not only turns in a career-best performance, but her gravitational pull saves a frustrating group of characters from a mediocre film.

French Exit follows mother Frances Price (Pfeiffer) and her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) as they leave New York City. Frances has run out of money, so she decides to sell her possessions and flee to Paris. Malcolm follows his mother, despite his recent engagement to Susan (Imogen Poots). On the ship to Paris, Malcolm meets a young clairvoyant Madeline (Danielle Macdonald), who recognizes something special about the Price’s cat. When the cat goes missing in Paris, the Prices assemble a quirky group to help find the feline.

Pfeiffer owns the screen from the first to the last moments of French Exit. As much a comedic showcase as a dramatic one, Pfeiffer stuns with her total control of the material. Her razor-sharp wit leads to incredible exchanges throughout the film, bending lesser men to her will. The veteran actress keys in on Frances’ unpredictable nature, and channels it through every mannerism and expression. Yet bubbling beneath the surface is clear emotional turmoil. You understand how French Exit‘s rather silly turns are merely obstacles for the other characters to find themselves in Frances’ good graces. It’s a magnetic, unflinching performance that pushes Pfeiffer into the conversation for the best performance of the year.

Director Azazel Jacobs draws heavily from the socialite film handbook. The characters on screen are rather typical of their social class, and could easily be seen interacting with the characters of a Woody Allen, Noah Baumbach, or Metropolitan. The absurdity of privilege is in full display, but Jacobs recognizes this rather early on. Despite the oddity of how his characters spend money, treat government officials, or speak about each other, Jacobs makes sure to deliver silliness at every turn. His masterful use of pace and editing helps to get the most out of the many jokes on the page. He even delivers on extra gags through his visual control.

Despite this, there are times where Jacob’s cast feels flat. Pfeiffer’s performance injects energy at every turn and only a few cast members meet that energy. Hedges loses much of his charm and charisma that have made him a positive for most films. Instead, it feels like he was asked to turn-in a Jessie Eisenberg impression, which he accomplishes to varying levels of success. French Exit features too many insane one-liners to be filled with subdued and restrained characters. Jacobs needed to break his performers out of this spell but instead seemed to encourage them in this frustrating direction.

Other actors excel with this style. Valerie Mahaffey excels as Madame Reynard, a Parisian with an interest in becoming Frances’ friend. Mahaffey willingly sells the pratfalls and verbal antics that cause characters to mock her. Yet her genuine and authentic behavior pave the road for the other characters to embrace her. Macdonald plays into the oddity of her mentalist nature, but the character could easily be from another narrative. When given small moments, Macdonald knocks them out of the park, but there are few reasons to believe this character would be drawn into the Price’s drama.

The screenplay offers plenty of humor and some true heart as well. Patrick Dewitt adapts his own novel to great success, but some moments feel more literary than cinematic. The love triangles that revolve around Malcolm do not work, in part because there’s little reason for us to believe Malcolm would be appealing to one character, let alone two. Characters interact like they’re from different planets and the pithy dialogue does little to tie them together. It also leads the film to an odd position, where it is neither a straight farce about the privilege given to the characters, but it is also willing to make dozens of jokes at the character’s defense. It’s a shortcoming that becomes exacerbated by the directing, and it leaves French Exit with some truly frustrating moments.

All told, Pfieffer is worth the price of admission for French Exit. Her marvelous turn will likely find attraction in the awards race, and may even find itself in the driver’s seat. Yet a weaker film around her cannot be ignored. With some miscasting and other seemingly random characters, French Exit never lives up to what could have been. Instead, it comes across as a half-hearted commentary, despite some excellent emotional beats.


NYFF Review: French Exit

This uneven absurdist comedy immeasurably benefits from its iconic star

| Mtt Dougherty

Every awards season, there are movies seemingly built around showcasing a certain talent rather than constructing a strong narrative throughline. The end result is often mixed-message storytelling, thematic confusion, and a figure at which to marvel at the center of it all. Azazel Jacobs has directed such a film, with high highs and low lows occurring almost evenly by the time the credits roll. But my god, that Michelle Pfeiffer is electrifying, isn’t she?

And she always has been. French Exit, like many films in her career spanning decades, is so much better for having her in it. ScarfaceMarried to the MobDangerous Liaisons, The Fabulous Baker Boys, and Batman Returns are all good films in which Pfeiffer is largely responsible for what greatness they harbor, even if in some cases, and with the passage of time, the overall greatness of the film as a whole has somewhat lessened. In many ways, Pfeiffer is an icon still in search of a career-defining role in a timeless work of cinema (though with the seemingly endless popularity of screen superheroes, her Catwoman from 1992 absolutely achieves something definitive in Tim Burton’s undervalued sequel), and French Exit is an opportunity that just misses the mark, to no fault of the actress by any means. In fact, like the films mentioned above, she is undoubtedly the best thing about it.

Screenwriter Patrick deWitt adapts his own novel of the same name with a penchant for absurdism and irreverence. French Exit is the story of a broke widow, Frances (Pfeiffer), who hasn’t worked a day in her life and her son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), as they’re forced to move from New York City to Paris on the charity of a friend when their funds run out. Oh, and with them is a cat that Frances believes her late husband (Tracy Letts) to be living inside of. The first half is a hilarious riot with strong, just-endearing-enough characterizations and a tender mother-son dynamic that neatly collects everything the film is trying to do rather than try and ground it.

And did I mention that Pfeiffer is dynamite? She imbues Frances with an icy, entitled exterior, through her enchanting signature body language, that’s just heightened enough to land all her sauciest, cruelest insults and side glances with the intended hilarious effect. It’s her limited but critical role in 2017’s brilliant mother!, which marked the start of the actress’ creative comeback, taken to its most logical endpoint. Yet, in her one-on-one scenes with Hedges, her devastating side-eye glazes over with unmistakable affection. Together, their characters share a mutual understanding that is at once adult and childish. When Frances stumbles into their Paris digs on Christmas Eve with a new bike for Malcolm, it’s clear these are not moments they were able to share when he was younger. A scene later, they can have a frank conversation about sex toys and exploits.

Jacobs and deWitt nail the pacing of the first half, keeping the focus on them while easing us into the film’s off-center tone. But as a supernatural occurrence in the middle pulls us into the second half, so too does it pull a number of other characters into the story, partially robbing us of the rich dynamic expertly built in what came before. Pfeiffer’s role slightly shrinks, and Hedges can’t quite achieve that same chemistry with any of the other supporting players, including Danielle Macdonald and Imogen Poots, both giving strong turns.

At this point, French Exit shifts from a subtly surrealist black comedy to a lighter ensemble piece that doesn’t develop its new players very well and is too irreverent for its own good. The story loses sight of what was working for it, and suddenly seems to be in a rush. Though the ending smartly gets back to the mother-son relationship upon which the film was built, too much of what comes just before in the brisk 110-minute runtime is devoted to unearned resolutions.

Still, crumbs of brilliance make their way throughout French Exit. The film’s unmissable best scene, in which Frances and Malcolm attend what they think is a larger holiday party, is a perfect blend of classic cringe comedy in deWitt’s script and expert timing from Jacobs and Pfeiffer. It’s one of the funniest scenes in a film this year and worth a look, even if you’re left wondering where that brilliance went for the rest of the film. As the script requires that Pfeiffer start commanding the screen less, one wonders if she took it with her.


Michelle Pfeiffer Officially Enters A Promising Best Actress Race With ‘French Exit’

| Gregory Ellwood

Breathe easy film and gay twitter, Michelle Pfeiffer is officially your fan-favorite Best Actress contender. The three time Oscar nominee stars in Azazel Jacobs’ “French Exit,” an unconventional dramedy that closed the 2020 New York Film Festival on Saturday night and is currently dated to hit theaters on February 12. 2021. And, as hoped, it’s arguably Pfeiffer’s best performance in years.

The star of such classics as “Scarface,” “Dangerous Liaisons” and “Batman Returns” plays Frances, a fixture of New York City’s wealthy elite in the “third stage” of her life. When she learns that the inheritance from her dead husband has all but vanished she is at a loss at how to continue. After a sympathetic friend offers her apartment in Paris, Francis grabs her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), all the remaining cash she can muster and their cat for the transatlantic journey (on a cruise liner, no less). Oh, and did we mention the cat contains the soul of the aforementioned husband (voiced by Tracy Letts)? It’s certainly described as “surreal” in the official synopsis for a reason, but don’t let that fool you.

The role allows Pfeiffer to showcase her mastery of witty dialogue and tease the heartbreak behind Francis’ often sarcastic and steely exterior. Pfeiffer hasn’t been given a role this juicy since Stephen Frears’ “Cheri” (settle down “Where Is Kyra?” defenders, that’s a debate for another day) and it puts her smack dab in the middle of a crowded race for a Best Actress nomination. The one advantage Pfeiffer has over most of her competition, however, is that outside of Carey Mulligan (more on her in a minute), she has been gifted the funniest role of the bunch. Thankfully, screenwriter Patrick deWitt (who adapted his own novel) and Jacobs craft a memorable character in Francis who is more than just a mechanism for sassy one-liners.

The candidacy of Mulligan, who was the buzz of Sundance for her incredible turn in “Promising Young Woman,” resurfaced this week after  for the dramedy and revealed it’s now scheduled to hit theaters on Dec. 25. The “Drive” and “Great Gatsby” star will vie with Pfeiffer for the fairly loud twitter commentators who often influence the growing number of Academy and SAG voting members online. Those members then spread buzz to their peers who aren’t on the social platform, encourage them to make sure they watch the screener, and so on and so on. Does that mean either actress is guaranteed to make the final five? Far from it. At this point, only “Nomadland’s” Frances McDormand and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’s” Viola Davis seem assured of that. But, its certainly Pfeiffer’s best shot this century.

In any other year, of course, it would be easy to assume Pfeiffer would almost assuredly make it. The movie may entertain in fits and starts, but Pfeiffer often assures that Jacobs’ unique tone works as much as it does. Sony Classics are also masters at working the traditional awards season mechanisms with nominations for performances by Glenn Close, Antonio Banderas, and Isabelle Huppert, among others, to their credit. Classics rarely spend at the level of other studios in terms of media buys. Instead, they smartly use Q&As, press opportunities, tributes and public appearances for an almost entirely “on the ground” approach. How that strategy can be flipped for a COVID affected awards season remains to be seen and will be their toughest challenge even if Pfeiffer is game to hit the “virtual” road (and it should be noted they aren’t the only distributor who will have to manage expectations in this regard).


New York Film Fest 2020 Review: Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges Make a Great Escape in Azazel Jacobs’ Irresistible “French Exit”

| Stephen Saito

Facing bankruptcy, a New York socialite and her son head for Paris in the delightful new comedy from the director of “The Lovers.”

Even if it didn’t end with a killer punchline, it’s amusing to think there would be any scenario in which Frances Price (Michelle Pfeiffer) didn’t demand your attention in “French Exit,” though the unimaginable happens when she attempts to get a check from a waiter who would rather take his smoke break. She’s just arrived in Paris with her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) and not about to be ignored, having already been uprooted from a cushy lifestyle in New York where the inheritance left over from her dead husband had run dry, leaving her to take up a friend’s generous offer to figure things out in her apartment across the pond. The waiter may afford himself a drag on the cigarette before Frances locks eyes with him, but finds that he’s the one going up in flames soon enough.

You can’t take your eyes off Frances thanks to a dazzling turn by Pfeiffer, weaponizing every word as a grand dame having trouble acclimating to a lesser quality of life than what she’s become accustomed to in Patrick DeWitt’s wickedly funny adaptation of his own novel. But “French Exit” becomes so much more under the direction of Azazel Jacobs, who no doubt was intrigued with an exploration of codependent relationships that dates back to his 2008 breakthrough “Momma’s Man,” recruiting his real-life parents Ken and Flo Jacobs to take their son (played by Matt Boren) back into the nest when he can no longer handle being around his own wife and child. In the years since, whether it’s been best friends Emily Mortimer and Dolly Wells in the HBO series “Doll and Em” or more recently “The Lovers,” in which the director made the most of the tantalizing premise of a married couple that falls back in love with each other when their affairs went bad, Jacobs has honed in on the give-and-take of long-term relationships, revealing the needs of those who least appear to have any while finding unexpected ways for them to be satisfied.

Frances would seem not to want for anything, coldly informing a fellow ex-pat (Valerie Mahaffey) looking for friends that any new relationships at this point in her life would be a burden, but in fact, she hopes the best for her son, who is too timid to tell her that before arriving in Paris he had already made plans to move there with his fiancee (Imogen Poots). Neither knows exactly how to best talk to one another, owing to the strangeness of the dozen years after the patriarch’s death in which the details were rarely discussed, yet the two have relied upon each other in the years since if not for money, for company when their riches have isolated them from having to engage much with the outside world. As Frances is apt to tell anyone who will listen, she’s content to die when the money runs out, and with her propensity to throw obscene amounts of money at anyone that can help put a smile on her face, having no idea what value things have besides what she can place on them herself, that time is coming sooner than later, though she’s intent on setting up Malcolm for life in ways that extend beyond financial comfort.

While there’s always been a slightly surreal comic tone in his work, Jacobs seemed to fully find his groove quite literally on “The Lovers” where an extravagant score opened up the feelings bursting inside his characters that they were unable to publicly express themselves, and faced with conveying the casual absurdity of “The Sisters Brothers” author’s work, he returns to that specific idea here, enlisting DeWitt’s younger brother Nick for the often mischievous and heartswelling musical accompaniment, and with the deceptively subdued yet colorful work of cinematographer Tobias Datum, production designer Jean-Andre Carriere and costume designer Jane Petrie create a world in which a talking cat imbued with the spirit of Frances’ dead husband Frank (voiced by Tracy Letts) doesn’t seem all that odd. Gradually bringing together a collection of strays inside Frances’ borrowed apartment, including both the fortune teller (Danielle MacDonald) able to summon Frank’s spirit and the private investigator tasked with tracking her down (Isaac de Bankole), the fuller the rooms become in the film, the more its artifice falls away to show its considerable heart. “French Exit” may be all about going out in style, but its great substance is what shines through brilliantly.


Michelle Pfeiffer brings sly elegance to the peculiar but charming “French Exit”

In Azazel Jacobs’ film, the actress plays a glamorous widow with a cat who finds herself insolvent and in Paris

salon | Gary M. Kramer

At the center of “French Exit,” the closing night film at this year’s New York Film Festival, is the formidable Frances Price (Michelle Pfeiffer), a once-wealthy widow now facing insolvency. Frances, who has a reputation of sorts, sizes up and takes control of every situation she encounters. It is her defense mechanism to silence all comers, from a real estate agent who demands a high fee to the waiter whose attention can only be obtained by setting a floral display on fire. These are character-defining moments that illustrate Frances’ moxie. But she is mercurial. How else to explain Frances’ penchant for sharpening a knife in the dark because she likes the sound it makes?

Pfeiffer delivers a sly, elegant performance as Frances, which provides the chief pleasure of Azazel Jacobs’ film, a melancholy farce adapted by Patrick DeWitt from his novel of the same name. Watching Frances lighting a cigarette, as she does throughout the film, reveals so much of her mood, her thoughts, and her feelings. With each calculated flick of the lighter, the louche Frances illuminates her weariness, and steels herself for what comes next.

Frances always looks glamorous, but she is self-aware enough to acknowledge that her glamour days are long gone. Jacobs lets his camera fixate on Pfeiffer’s impressive cheekbones as Frances looks forlornly out a window. Despite her regal postures, she is a sad, haunted woman, putting on a brave face, masking her pain.

And then there is her voice. Pfeiffer purrs many of her lines in “French Exit,” and her husky whisper is delicious. She can melt or chill the air depending on what she is saying or whom she is talking to. She exhibits a haughtiness when addressing most people, but a conversation she has with a homeless man on a park bench in Paris is downright seductive.

Frances is in Paris because she has moved there with her adult son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) and her black cat, Small Frank (voiced by Tracy Letts). She has liquidated her remaining assets and sailed to Europe to stay at her friend Joan’s (Susan Coyne) modest apartment. She had hoped her life would run out before her money, as was the plan, but the reverse has happened. France for Frances is not quite retirement — that would suggest she actually worked a day in her life — nor is it a second or even third act. It is, she acknowledges, more like a coda. Frances is contemplating suicide, a fact she scribbles on a postcard to Joan but never mails. However, a waiter who finds it does, and Joan arrives in Paris only to discover her apartment is full of people.

And it is in this packed apartment that the film finds much of its humor. Frances has unexpectedly befriended Mme. Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey), a lonely widow during her brief time in the city. Mme. Reynard is quirky and neurotic, but she helps Frances secure a private investigator, Julius (Isaach De Bankolé, the coolest man in movies), to find Madeleine (Danielle Macdonald), a fortune teller who slept with Malcolm on the ocean liner, to communicate with the now-missing Small Frank. Small Frank, Frances insists, contains the spirit of her late husband, and Frances as well as Malcolm have some unfinished business with him. As Madeleine conducts a séance, “French Exit” gets a bit goofy, but Pfeiffer sells Frances’s belief, which is what makes it drolly amusing.

Things get wackier when Susan (Imogen Poots), Malcolm’s fiancé arrives from New York, with Tom (Daniel di Tomasso) her once and current beau in tow. Tom engages Malcolm in an arm-wrestling contest which is silly, but not inappropriate.

“French Exit” does not so much build narrative tension as ask viewers to go with the flow, which is what Frances does in Paris. Her letting go — of money, of grudges, of herself — liberates her, and provides the film with its poignancy and charm. At times, the film can feel stagey or artificial, with clipped dialogue and pregnant pauses, but when a character mentions something about luck, or love, what at first seems frivolous becomes oddly thoughtful, even meaningful upon reflection.


Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges can’t quite make the surreal comedy French Exit fly: Review

| Leah Greenblatt

Her presence has still been too rare a thing over the last two decades or so to not appreciate seeing  on screen again. And French Exit feels like it was essentially designed to showcase her: a tiny gilded jewel box of a movie with her outsize presence nestled at the center. But there’s more to admire than to love in Azazel Jacobs’ arch drawing-room comedy, with its surreal styling and arch -y tics — and something essential lost, maybe, in screenwriter Patrick deWitt’s own adaptation of his acclaimed .

Pfeiffer, a swirl of Auntie Mame glamour and cigarette smoke, is Frances Price, a legendary Manhattan socialite fallen on very hard times. Her captain-of-industry husband is dead, which she had something untoward to do with, and the money is nearly all gone; her best hope lies in the kindness of friends, like the one who immediately offers the use of a large and almost insultingly lovely apartment in Paris. (May we all know such penury!)

What she hasn’t lost is the unchecked loyalty of her young-adult son, Malcolm (), a gentle but seemingly aimless soul who can’t even work up the nerve to tell his mother he’s engaged, to his impatient fiancée’s () ongoing chagrin. And so he goes with her to France, picking up a casual fling (Bird Box‘s Danielle Macdonald) along the way who also turns out to be some kind of self-proclaimed gypsy able to commune with the dead.

Speaking of the dearly departed, that’s the late Mr. Price, apparently, in the body of the little black house cat (voiced by actor and playwright ) who comes with them everywhere — a cross-species haunting that seems to faze exactly no one, least of all his widow. There’s also a new Parisian friend, the fussy, fluttering Madame Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey), and a taciturn detective-for-hire (Isaac de Bankolé) when Small Frank goes missing.

Swaddled in silks and cashmere and with an entire pumpkin-spice mood board contained in her autumn-tinted hair, Pfeiffer is largely glorious to watch; her face, when her financial advisor first breaks the bad news, passes through some 17 separate micro-expressions before she even utters another word. And Hedges, so great in everything from  to  and , brings a sweet, anchoring vulnerability to the role of a boy still only just getting to know the woman who gave birth to him.

But the movie, whose premiere marked the close of the New York Film Festival tonight, never quite finds its equilibrium between champagne-problems fizz and the darker threads of melancholy running through it. What’s left feels like a sort of droll curiosity; a wisp of eat-the-rich fantasy and Gallic farce, lost in its own je ne sais quoi. B-


Review: Michelle Pfeiffer Joins the Oscar Race for Best Actress in “French Exit,” With Star Turns from Valerie Mahaffey and a Black Cat

| Roger Friedman

Michelle Pfeiffer cocks her head back imperiously as Frances Price, a once wealthy, still gorgeous widow, in “French Exit,” and pulls into second place behind Frances McDormand in the coming race for Best Actress at the Oscars. Someone wrote that it’s a light year for contenders in that category, but with Jennifer Hudson, Kate Winslet, and maybe Halle Berry possibly on the list, this is a high compliment.

That’s because Pfeiffer’s performance is so unexpected in a comedy termed “surreal” and edgy that begins in question and blossoms into something unique and memorable. First of all, to think that Michelle Pfeiffer is 62 years old makes no sense because she looks maybe 42. Did she ever age? Or was is just that after her big run from 1988 to 1992 (three Oscar nominations) she turned down her celebrity volume and got very zen?

“French Exit” was a 2018 novel by Canadian author Patrick deWitt, who wrote the screenplay for the movie. He also wrote the novel, “The Sisters Brothers” that was turned into a big flop of a movie, so I was a little nervous as “French Exit” proceeded that we’d be in trouble. And really for the first half of this film, directed by Azazel Jacobs, I wasn’t quite sure we were going to make it. Pfeiffer’s co-stars are Lucas Hedges, looking like Wes Anderson, as her laconic son, Malcolm, Imogen Poots as Malcolm’s older and impatient girlfriend, a Canadian actress named Susan Coyne, as Joan (who is maybe Frances’s wealthy, wise, and plain sister); and a black cat — yes– a black cat, who is more than he appears to be.

And there’s one more actor in this gang: Valerie Mahaffey, who has been chipping away year by year at mostly a television career, with an Emmy win and a Daytime Emmy nomination. She plays Madame Reynaud, an American ex pat with money who nearly steals the film and gets herself a Best Supporting Actress slot almost effortlessly. Mahaffey is an overnight sensation at age 67 (and also looking much younger).

If you don’t know deWitt’s novel (I didn’t) you don’t know what you’re waiting for. So when Frances is advised she’s broke and must sell everything, Joan — these people are RICH — tells her to go stay in her spare apartment in Paris. As you do. Frances seems barely attached to reality. Instead of getting on a cheap flight to Charles DeGaulle, she and Malcolm set sail in separate state rooms on an expensive cruise liner. They bring their black cat, who is clearly more than just a house pet, and we find out later is named for Frances’s late husband and Malcolm’s father, Frank (played stiffly by Tracy Letts).

On the cruise, they meet a medium named Madeleine with special talents played Danielle McDonald, who is also great this season as rock critic Lillian Roxon in “I Am Woman.” How Madeleine is on the cruise, how Little Frank the cat, passes customs, all of this is a mystery that kicks the second half of the film into something you now realize is quite different than the set up, and 100 times more enjoyable.

Among the things that happen is that Frances becomes a little like Aurora Greenaway from “Terms of Endearment.” A group of eccentric people are now attracted to her situation like metal shavings to a magnet. It’s no longer just her and Malcolm as the camera draws back to reveal a group that gathers for no apparent reason except possibly a missing cat. And that seems to be enough for director Jacobs to pull off a satisfying, surprise success. You realize that with this film, with “Nomadland,” and “The Father,” that 2020 isn’t a lost movie year* at all. It was just a slow starter.


Movie Review (NYFF): ‘French Exit’ is a Melancholic Love Story between Mother and Son

| Alesandra Rangel

French Exit, the latest movie by director Azazel Jacobs, speaks kindly to my soul. This film, with its elegance, quirkiness, and sardonic humor, happens to be a beautiful love story between mother and son that find each other and never let go. However, this is not all that the movie offers. At its core, it is about lonely people and the way they unexpectedly connect.

The story, adapted by Patrick Dewitt from his own novel, follows Frances (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Malcolm (Lucas Hedges). She is a socialite that has been a widow for twelve years and now finds herself in the last stage of her life without any money left in her bank account. He is her son that goes through life with a depressing and wandering attitude, always there in a taciturn and shadowy way. He is useless in life but loyal to the woman who rescued him from a boarding school when the patriarch (Tracy Letts) of the family suddenly died and who, according to the family of two, now possesses the body of the family cat, Small Frank.

The life of Francis is defined and shaped by money. From the first moment we meet her we understand that she lives in a special bubble where anything is possible and where she can do whatever she wants. However, these glory days are over and belong in the past, coming to life in the present through wild and eccentric stories told by those around her in awe of her presence.

Now she is tired, hopeless, and, for the first time, stripped from the things that defined her place in society. However, she still has her personality, one of the most compelling and captivating profiles in any movie of the year, brought to life by an exquisite Michelle Pfeiffer, dressed in awe-inducing costumes by Jane Petrie. Her presence is instantly felt, her sassiness is enjoyable, and her sense of self is inspiring.

This woman, certainly privileged, is fearless and charming and shares a beautiful and co-dependent bond with her grownup son, Malcolm. Together they form a duo that is stoic, sharp, and highly entertaining. Therefore, it is a pleasure to follow their long trip from New York to a friend’s apartment in Paris. Precisely this change in scenario is the one that brings an extravagant and adorable storytelling and production design that recalls the work of Wes Anderson. A bleaker and darker Anderson with a sharper and affecting script.

They are rapidly surrounded by lonely and love-hungry people, including a widow that has been a lifelong fan of Frances, Mme Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey); a clairvoyant that travels in the same ship as the family, Madeleine (Danielle Macdonald); a private detective who develops a sweet bond with clingy Mme Reynard, Julius (Isaach de Bankolé); Malcolm’s ex-fiancé, Susan (Imogen Poots), who is followed by her new boyfriend, Tom (Daniel di Tomasso); and the owner of the apartment, Joan (Susan Coyne), best friend of Frances who rushes to Paris once she hears our protagonist is thinking about ending her life. Brought together by unusual circumstances, they seem to share a bond that no one wants to break apart, creating a new thread of co-dependency between all of them.

Although the movie is extremely enjoyable, its tone is melancholic, and its main characters are going through their own personal struggles, with great emphasis on Frances and her lack of interest in life. At this point, the exploration of the relationship between Frances, her dead husband, and Malcolm provides a new layer of significance in the relationship between mother and son.

There is a shared attitude between these two of blank existence and complete indifference towards everything that happens around them. They are just there, together, and oblivious of the rest of the world. Nonetheless, this couple is the heart and soul of the movie. They love each other, they are there for each other and they are equals. It may not be the healthiest relationship, but it is one that is wholesome and reciprocal.

Pfeiffer and Hedges shine together, effectively bringing to life the sense of complicity and belonging that exists in a dysfunctional but loving family. There is a specific scene – maybe the most emotional of the movie – where Frances and Malcolm talk about their relationship and how much they mean to each other. There is so much tenderness and love in this exchange that it is impossible to remain immune to this eccentric pair.

With beautiful reflections about love and life, aided by romantic views of Paris in the winter, French Exit offers a sensitive and empathetic lens on someone that is suddenly at odds with her life. The process of acceptance and maturity that Frances goes through during her exile in Paris is humbling and enriching for her and her son. Together, Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges, offer a beautiful story about two people that find each other after years apart creating an enviable and unbreakable bond.

Grade: A


French Exit evaluate: Michelle Pfeiffer wins, a speaking forged loses

The fundamental premise of French Exit is playful: Frances (Michelle Pfeiffer), lately widowed and operating out of cash, strikes to Paris along with her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) and their cat Small Frank, who simply so occurs to be her reincarnated husband (Tracy Letts).

The quirkiness quotient solely goes up provided that the remainder of the forged features a clairvoyant (Danielle Macdonald), a non-public investigator (Isaach de Bankolé), and a breathless fan of Frances’ who kinds herself as “Madame Reynard” (Valerie Mahaffey). Pfeiffer is fantastic in a task that calls for she be as defiant and as catty as doable; Frances is as sharp and as clear as could be. The remainder of the film, which strives to floor its strangeness in actuality, doesn’t fairly handle to coalesce to an analogous level.

Each Frances and Malcolm, whose relationship is usually strong aside from how little they speak in regards to the late Frank, is perhaps their very own worst enemies. Frances, who, in her extra melodramatic moments, threatens to kill herself when the cash runs out, virtually offers cash away, leaving a 100 Euro invoice on the desk at a restaurant after simply having espresso. Malcolm, who has simply change into engaged to his girlfriend Susan (Imogen Poots), can’t discover the heart to inform his mom in regards to the improvement, and leaves Susan in New York when Frances suggests they flee to Paris. When Susan tries to maneuver on, he takes offense, telling her that they’re nonetheless engaged.

The supernatural thread of the story is slowly teased out because the household settles in France. Small Frank goes lacking, prompting Frances to rent a clairvoyant who beforehand noticed Small Frank for what he was. She then serves as their gateway to speak with Frank by way of seance, at which level Letts’ disembodied voice converses with the gathered characters about all the pieces from household historical past to his discomfort with fleas. The twist is welcome insomuch because it’s an unusually mischievous method of addressing how tough it may be to maneuver on from a liked one’s demise (or the demise of somebody who was previously a liked one), and director Azazel Jacobs (The Lovers) treats the supernatural so naturally that it doesn’t seem to be a “gotcha” prank or gimmick.

The opposite components of the movie by no means fairly come collectively. Increasingly more folks come into Frances and Malcolm’s orbit, however the rising forged additionally means a rising variety of free ends. At a painfully awkward first assembly with Madame Reynard, who invitations the mom and son over, unprompted, within the hope that they may change into associates, Malcolm discovers a dildo within the freezer. The scene feels pointless — it’s already clear that Madame Reynard is just a little unusual from the dialog so far, and if it’s some touch upon the unusual issues folks do with a purpose to address loss (Reynard has misplaced her husband as effectively), that aspect of the argument is rarely addressed, neither is the thing ever introduced up once more.

The performances do a very good chunk of the work in serving to easy over the movie’s tough edges. Mahaffey is especially memorable, as she imbues Reynard with a couple of tics and unusual traits (to maneuver from one a part of a sofa to a different, she crawls over the cushions) that make it clear that she’s not a lady who has had a lot expertise in social conditions. However Pfeiffer’s efficiency is the rock on which Jacobs builds all the pieces. The story that Reynard tells about her — that, upon assembly a detractor, she was so detached that the would-be gloater might really feel nothing however disgrace — appears bigger than life, nevertheless it’s plausible given one have a look at Pfeiffer’s face. She nonetheless exudes a way of power, even when, as Frances, she’s not totally certain the place she’s going, and watching her mild a desk setting on hearth when a waiter refuses to take care of them is extremely satisfying.

That there in the end isn’t an excessive amount of plot doesn’t weigh French Exit down. It’s much less a thriller or drama, although Small Frank’s disappearance definitely spurs on some motion, and extra a personality examine as to how these folks react to the massive and small upheavals of their lives, and the way Frances and Malcolm join with one another, or don’t, as Frank’s neglect of them each has left some emotional scars. The performances and the basis of the story are compelling, however having one thing as unusual as a speaking cat feels value additional investigation.


NYFF FILM REVIEW: MICHELLE PFEIFFER SHINES AS BOOZY SOCIALITE IN CLOSING NIGHT’S “FRENCH EXIT”

| J. Don Birnam

Early on in the upcoming satirical film “French Exit,” protagonist Frances Price (Michelle Pfeiffer) parries a desperate entreaty by pathetic, abandoned socialite Mme. Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey) to become friends. “I am not really looking for friends,” Frances states dismissively, before adding, even more cruelly, to the crestfallen Mme. Reynard “for now, at least.” The scene is emblematic of Azazel Jacobs’ (“The Lovers”) upcoming film, which was the closing night movie at the 58th New York Film Festival and will be released early next year by Sony Pictures Classic. An off-color and therefore deeply amusing turn of phrase by an embittered woman, played with emphatic gusto and range by Ms. Pfeiffer, wreaking havoc to those around her. You may not care much for this particular elitist, but she sure will entertain you.

French Exit” opens with a sequence of flashbacks, which eventually book end the film, of a slightly younger Frances picking up her young son Malcolm (played as a young adult by Lucas Hedges) from his glitzy private school, having bad news to deliver and to confront in the face of Malcolm’s failing behavior. There is a somewhat cold distance between the two—buoyed by Frances’ overall disinterest in others and by Malcolm’s reactive, self-defensive posturing—though it is clear that in their mutual disdain for the world mother and son have also formed a special connection. Quickly we learn that Frances’ husband, Small Frank (Tracy Letts, mostly in voice overs), has passed under mysterious circumstances, leaving Frances little but a piling mountain of debt and a good name.

Despondent and at the advice of her incredulous lawyer, Frances sells what possessions she has left—for cash, cold, hard, green stacks of Euro notes—and departs from Paris. Malcolm, stuck in a sickly codependent with needy Susan (an amusing Imogen Poots), quickly if reluctantly takes his mother up on her invitation to join her.

The rest of “French Exit,” based on the book and screen adaptation by Patrick DeWitt, follows Frances and Malcolm as they encounter increasingly bizarre characters that begin to populate their renewed social circle—to both their ennui and cruel enjoyment. Frances and Malcolm instinctively scorn others, but they always want them around, if anything to have someone to disparage and condescend. There is the hapless Mme. Reynard, whose declining social fortunes see her saddened and alone in cooling Paris. There is the mysteriously confident, self-professed medium Madeleine (Daniel Macdonald, “”), who correctly predicts the death of an elderly passenger abroad the cruise ship that carries the protagonists to Europe, and who is later summoned to séance between the living and the spirit of Frances’ dead husband—thought to presently inhabit her faithful, black cat companion. There is Susan herself, who shows up unrequited with her new lover Tom, frantic to win Malcolm back. And eventually there is Julius (Isaac de Bankole), a Parisian investigator who reconnects Frances to Madeleine after they disembark in France.

Mr. DeWitt’s previous novel-to-film adaptation, “The Sisters Brothers,” welcomed audiences into his clever wit and unfailing flare for satire. His humor, like that of most sophisticated modern authors, comes not in the form of irony or hyperbole, but in the form of absurdist and improbable situations carried out with normalcy. One could call it a mix of irony and satire, without one side every outweighing the others.

At the center of this elaborate dance, of course, is its principal character, the viciously-lipped Frances. As she traverses her days and nights, Frances takes obvious, perverse pleasure in stunning those around her with her behavior, and getting away with it. She frequently holds and swivels a topped-off, stiff martini in an extravagant glass, befriends hobos and homeless men and hurls invectives at police officers who rush to her side seemingly attracted to her obvious wealth and still stunning beauty. She is most cruel to those who would befriend her, both silently mocking what she knows they are thinking about her (“wow, this poor sad, broke woman”) by making extravagant purchases and convincingly acting as if all is well, and also by directly pointing out the many ways in which she finds them inadequate.

In private, Frances appears to suffer somewhat, though she does not let even the viewer in to fully understand the extent of her troubles. She speaks repeatedly of ending her own life, or of her belief in her impending death, while remaining defiant that she has ever acted poorly—including when she found her dead husband and neglected to report the discovery to the stunned authorities for a number of days.

None of this would work, naturally, without a talented actress to hit the various emotional tones required to bring full life to the character. In this vein, Ms. Pfeiffer, perfectly cast for the role given her signature ability to turn her mouth and steely eyes to convey strong disgust and disdain, is perfect. She channels other boozy socialites of yore, of course, from Katherine Hepburn in “A Philadelphia Story,” to Cate Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine,” all while having to juggle the increasingly absurdist, “Beetlejuice” style of the proceedings around her. The remaining cast, in particular Ms. Poots and Ms. Mahaffey, also shine, but all are ultimately eclipsed by an exceptional turn by “French Exit’s” protagonist.

Most importantly, neither Frances nor Malcolm ever ask for your sympathy—they know quite well they are not deserving, and that you would not give it to them. Few people can be less sympathetic in any case. Rich, spoiled, insufferably self-centered New York well-to-dos do not exactly pull at the heart strings. The value of “French Exit” is that it needs no such emotive device to enamor you. It does it not with pity or commiseration, but with a quirky, uniquely clever style, and by its fascinatingly absurdist occurrences. All of this, cemented by Ms. Pfeiffer’s endless turn of phrase and expression, make for one of the most interesting closing night films at this festival in a while, and one of the most delectable films of this awards season.

GRADE: B+


Ringing Your Curtain Down

| Jeffrey Wells

The reviews are correct, the rumors are true: Michelle Pfeiffer has lucked into the best role of her life in Azazel Jacobs‘ French Exit (Sony Pictures Classics, 2.12.21), a sardonic “comedy” with a gently surreal quality around the edges.

Which means that it’s not all that surreal, or at least not to me. A talking deceased husband (Tracy Letts) inhabiting the body of a cat or cryptically conversing with his widow and son during a seance…whatever. What French Exit is really about is dry gallows humor by way of a certain kind of “I won’t back down” resignation. And within that particular realm it’s very, very good.

If you’re going to make a bitter-end comedy with this kind of attitude or philosophy, you need to own it — no excuses or mitigations, no second thoughts, no third-act softenings. If nothing else French Exit is self-aware and highly confident, and therefore by any fair standard a first-rate effort. Is it “funny”? Well, not actually but it’s good company as far it goes. I was smirking. I was never bored. At the very least I was intrigued.

Exit is about Pfeiffer’s Frances Price, a suddenly destitute, formerly wealthy widow in her mid ’60s who decides to move into a friend’s Paris apartment with her extremely passive son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) after learning that her once-ample bank account is all but empty. It’s also about how she does absolutely nothing to save herself. In fact she hurries the inevitable along.

But Pfeiffer really goes to town. She delivers every line with just the right shadings of jaded indifference, except it’s not a cold performance. It’s sly and fetching. You could almost say that Frances is a little bit like the Margo Channing role was for Bette Davis in All About Eve (’50) — a snooty bitch with nearly all the great lines. It absolutely represents a Best Actress Oscar nomination, and perhaps even a win. She’s as much of an assured contender as The Father‘s Anthony Hopkins.

The difference is that Davis was full of bite and gusto in Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘s 1950 classic while Pfeiffer is, like, really laid back in Jacobs’ film. So laid back that the only real observation or question about Frances is “okay, she’s having her fun because she really doesn’t give a shit and is comfortable with Parisian finality, so what method will she choose?”

Imagine that all of your money and marketable skills are somehow gone in a flash, and you have around 40K left in the bank. What would the HE community do?

Most of us would probably say, “Okay, I have to find a job or create a new income stream of some kind. The days of monetary comfort and treadmill engagement may be over, but it’s better to live and strive and hope for a better future than to collapse in a heap and give up.”

But a small minority might say, “The good times are over? I’ll have to sweat and struggle and use public transportation in order to survive? Okay, fuck it. Fuck it all. Let’s fly to Paris or Hanoi or Rome, rent a nice pad somewhere, eat well and enjoy the city, and when the money’s gone I’ll off myself with an overdose of heroin or something.”

You could describe the first response as noble or admirable — the classic “when the going gets tough, the tough get their asses in gear” approach that Jane Darwell shared at the end of John Ford‘s The Grapes of Wrath (’40). The second response is basically “if you think I’m gonna stick around while my life gets more and more desperate, you’ve got another think coming.”

Based on a , French Exit is definitely about the second option. It’s about throwing in the towel, but always with a deliciously baroque attitude, a witty bon mot, a raised eyebrow or a frozen glare of some kind. It may be about extreme detachment but the deadpan nihilism is front and center and loaded for bear.

Yes, the “fuck this, who cares, let’s have a cigarette and a glass of champagne” attitude is more entertaining than anything Ford or Darwell might’ve cooked up. You could make a movie about Ma Joad travelling to Paris to restart her life, I suppose, but you’d have to get the Dardennes brothers to direct it.

Jaded deadpan nihilism will always appeal to your detached hipster types (which would include me in this instance) and so I have to say that French Exit is a film that absolutely knows itself and how to have a certain kind of fun with nothingness, and that it celebrates that void with wit and a certain flatline sense of style, and that if you can somehow shift your head into the mindset that Jacobs, deWitt, Pfeiffer and Hedges are selling, you might have a reasonably good time with it.

French Exit is definitely a film for those with the ability or inclination to chuckle about how miserable life can be at times. It doesn’t have any faith in anything except its own creations, particularly the dialogue. It doesn’t believe in rainbows or possibilities or good luck or anything along those lines. : “Life’s a goddam laugh riot.”

I was told that French Exit is a slog, but it’s not. It traffics in standing-at-the-edge-of-a-cliff despair but with a certain kind of style that you could call a form of humor if you wanted to sound obliging or accommodating. It is funny in its own way, but in HE parlance I’m talking about no-laugh funny, and I mean that with respect. (No critic or columnist has celebrated no-laugh funny like myself…no one.)

As I watched last night I was thinking that Frances regards life as a wickedly amusing premise in almost the same way that Humphrey Bogart‘s Billy Danruther did in John Huston‘s . The difference is that Bogart smiled and chuckled a lot in that 1953 film while Pfeiffer smiles only with a certain chilly irony. But man, she delivers each and every line with a wonderful crack of the bat.

There’s something that happens between Hedges and costar  () in the first act that I found flabbergasting. I’m not allowed to mention the basis for my flabbergast and so I’ll leave it at that. Just saying.

The film was mostly shot in Montreal with a little bit of Paris thrown in. There’s one streets-of-Paris tracking scene in which Hedges is seen bike-riding around the Marais and near the Canal St. Martin, etc. Thrown in solely to convince viewers of its geographical coordinates.

Azazel has said that The Favourite and Phantom Thread were inspirations.


NYFF: The sad, strange, incomplete “French Exit”

| Nathaniel R

Frances Price, the soon to be impoverished widow at the center of French Exit alarms everyone around her and puts them on edge. She will just not cooperate. Neither will Michelle Pfeiffer, the actress playing her, for that matter. Rather than dance around it, let’s just state the conundrum up front. When you’re watching your favourite actor star in a potential comeback role based on a book you’ve grown deeply fond of and have already visualized as a movie in your head, the conflicts between expectations and reality and dreams can be impossible to mediate. And disconcerting, too. You’ve got to watch the movie for the movie but also work through your own external actress-related issues while doing so.

I obsess over Michelle Pfeiffer, okay?! There’s no avoiding it and little point not foregrounding it in this review. Complete strangers know this about me…

Herein lies the catch of loving an actor who rarely works. Every single movie becomes utterly fraught with expectations. It can’t just be a hit or miss, like any random project from any busy actor is allowed to be, it has to be ‘the one!’ because you know she’ll vanish again for another three years (apart from tiny roles) as she’s done regularly for the past 17 years. All of this is a long way of confessing that I love Michelle Pfeiffer so much that she gives me anxiety when I’m watching her.

It was Frances’ shrug that first unnerved me. Near the beginning of French Exit, which wisely cuts right to the chase, she’s listening to a financial advisor tell her she’s toast. ALL the money is gone. She shrugs and repeats. Shrugs and repeats. The shrug is deeply offputting in its impenetrable defeatism. This woman can’t and won’t hear any more but Pfeiffer’s avoidance is closer to helpless nihilism than the profligate defiance pictured from Frances while reading. The dissonance alarmed me.

And yet my own reaction, however personal, might well be closer to a general audience’s reaction than I would have expected. For Frances is a deeply aggravating woman. She will not bend to society’s expectations or your whims or needs, whether or not they’re reasonable. And, worse, she’ll never question her own, no matter how strange, hypocritical, or destructive. And so Frances and her zombie-like son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges, also much different than any read of the novel) quietly sell everything they have for cash and head off to Paris with their cat Small Frank in tow (he’s named after Frances’ dead husband). Malcolm and Small Frank blindly follow Frances but Frances move with true unwavering intent; She never plans to return.

Though Patrick deWitt’s screenplay, based on his own novel, moves swiftly and is appropriately merciless with itself  — he drops large chunks of the already slim novel as casually as Frances dispenses with big stacks of the only money she has left — it’s hard not to long for some of what’s missing. The character of Madeline the psychic (ubiquitous Danielle Macdonald) for example is mostly lost in the transfer as is cool Frances’ atypically warm relationship with her best friend Joan (Susan Coyne). One particularly strange choice DeWitt makes is to drop Frances’s most prominent verbal tic in the book, a conversation-stopping “that’s right” whenever she’s questioned as if everyone around her is exceptionally stupid and didn’t understand her the first time.

Pfeiffer, always an expert at both ice queens and mordant comedy, plays Frances much warmer than I was expecting which is… a choice I’m eager to revisit to understand. Hedges also makes definitive choices, and though the character is more loveable in this new form, he’s simplified. Most of the cast has good fun with their roles but the best among them by a significant margin is the delightful Valerie Mahaffey as the Prices’ needy neighbor Mademoiselle Reynard, a British widow living in Paris who is eager to befriend the infamous Frances. The problem is that Frances isn’t the sort of woman who is interest in “friendship” or fans. When Frances and Malcolm first visit Reynard, Malcolm makes a startling discovery in her apartment. I shan’t spoil the surprise but let’s just say that Mahaffey pitches her character comedy so perfectly that you absolutely believe the joke.

The performances, especially Pfeiffer’s, will be fun to investigate on a second viewing for their odd turns and possible layers, once those pesky novel-to-film expectations have dissipated, but will the movie itself? I fear not.

French Exit is the kind of film that becomes more and more enjoyable as it goes — the first half is sluggish but the momentum is real in the second half as things get increasingly odd. Your patience is rewarded. But the large and intractable problem with Azazel Jacobs’ adaptation of French Exit lies in its creative modesty. The specifics of the downward spiral plot paired so amusingly with its comically multiplying cast of looney-tunes characters all jammed into one Parisian apart, remain riveting from novel form despite the changes. Sadly, the filmmaking never matches the material, perpetually lagging behind.

Director Azazel Jacobs is good with actors (see also his debut feature The Lovers) but is either unwilling or unable to join the eccentric wavelength of the pitch the material demands. The crafts are competent but entirely perfunctory but this story begs for visuals and editing and sound with an actual point of view. Either embrace the morbidity of Frances’ fatalism or the farce of the clown-car like apartment, or the contradictions of the material wherein a mother and son behave as if they’re still unfathomably wealthy when they’re actually living in scarcity. But don’t just stand by haplessly while all of that is happening! One solution — loathe as I am to ever normally suggest it for adaptations– might have been narration. In this case there’s a ready made unexpectedly perfect narrator in Small Frank, who could have effectively retained some of the novel’s rich character insights while keeping the tricky tone of mordant fatalism and matter-of-fact comedy more consistent. Why shouldn’t a cat serve as deadpan guide, as they’re already perfectly inscrutable observers.

 Even the two séance scenes in French Exit are played straight and thus feel non-committal, avoiding comedy even though comedy of the ridiculous needn’t exclude reality. Only the score, lightly comical but moody, exhibits a personality fit to play with the memorable characters.

Still French Exit is not without considerable redeeming merits. In addition to Pfeiffer’s intricate performance, two particular shots from the last act linger in a beautiful way, softer in their sentiment than expected but somehow true to the darker resolutions of the book. In the second séeance sequence Frances abruptly blows out the candles ending the scene with a depressing cut-to-black severity. Séances are generally reserved for reviving the dead but even in this tradition French Exit, like its maddening widow, won’t cooperate. Pfeiffer blows out the candles with such fury and abruptnesses it’s like she’s more eager to cause death than work around it. Later in a magical shot of empty Parisian streets we watch Frances walking away from us, receding. It’s not remotely abrupt but the finality stings.

Grade: B/B-