I saw this movie a while ago but I just kept getting distracted by other films to finally got a chance to review it. The story is based on Patrick deWitt’s elite-society satire novel of the same name, with the author himself also penning the screenplay. Now, not having read the book, I can’t compare the two, though on paper I could see how the premise could potentially work as a movie. Whether the book translates well onto screen is another matter entirely however, but one thing for sure, Michelle Pfeiffer is perfectly cast as the protagonist. Frances Price is an elegant and eccentric Manhattan widow who after a mere dozen years after her husband’s death has ran out of her inheritance. She manages to convert whatever left off her assets into cash before she jets off to Paris to stay in her fellow socialite girlfriend’s apartment, taking her sullen son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) and her black cat in tow. The oddly named cat Small Frank proves to be a significant plot point that takes an even bizarre turn later in the movie.
Frances is the kind of woman who doesn’t seem to let anything ruffles her… she didn’t break down or cry even when her accountant informs her that all the money’s gone. The role seems to be made for Le Pfeiffer who’s effortlessly charming and can beguile you with simply a look or a subtle gesture. She also looks amazing in her opulent attire, I especially love her fringed black dress and fur-lined camel coat. There’s always an air of mystery about her and I have to admit that’s what helps keeps me engaged in this movie. Hardly anything happens and some of the bizarre things that do happen, such as when they encounter a clairvoyant (Danielle Macdonald) on the ship, it’s done in such a nonchalant way that one can’t help but just shrugs it off.
The mother/son pairing of Pfeiffer and Hedges seems interesting at first, given how defiantly passive he is. He seems devoid of emotion as he casually dumps his fiancée Susan (an underutilized Imogen Poots) to accompany his mother. After a time, Malcolm grows more baffling and deeply unaffecting, and I wish there’s a better chemistry between the two. Now, Malcolm’s dullness is more of the fault of the script than Hedges’ acting. In fact, I think all the actors did their best to elevate the material and its skeleton thin plot. Director Azazel Jacobs peppers the film with lovely Parisian scenery, but it can only distract me for so long before I long for something meaningful in this movie. In the third act, suddenly the small apartment is crowded with people Frances meets along the way. Valerie Mahaffey as Frances’ quirky French neighbor Madame Reynard, Isaach De Bankolé as the private investigator have some memorable moments. Even Susan suddenly turns up with her boyfriend (Daniel di Tomasso) and things gets pretty chaotic.
There are some supernatural elements in the final act that makes the film even more surreal. Frances asks Madeline to channel Frances’ dead husband, in the apartment bathroom of all places! It’s also here that we learn why Small Frank behaves the way it behaves and why he’s given such a bizarre name. This revelation is seemingly random, instead of something that’s been an organic progress from the beginning. The few moments between Frances and her caring best friend Joan (Susan Coyne) is quite amusing as Frances is self-aware that ‘her life is riddled with clichés.’ There’s also a rather poignant scene of her reaching out to a homeless person outside her apartment, perhaps her last desperate attempts to find meaning in her hollow existence. It all feels a little too late however, thus it doesn’t really carry any emotional resonance.
Overall, despite Pfeiffer’s delightful performance, this movie doesn’t really stick in my mind long after its closing credits. It’s as if the writer is only interested in making the characters bizarre for its own sake instead of people we can connect or relate to in a meaningful way. I do like seeing Pfeiffer in a more comedic role, and she’s truly the reason this movie is worth a watch.
Have you seen FRENCH EXIT? Well, what did you think?