Early in Azazel Jacobs’s film French Exit, a “tragedy of manners”—per its screenwriter Patrick DeWitt, who also wrote the novel it’s based on—a character wistfully remarks, “They broke the mold with that one.” They’re referring to Frances Price, an elegant, aloof sixtysomething widow who sells off the last vestiges of her dead husband’s large estate and retires to Paris with her adult son, Malcolm. Yet they just as easily could be talking about Michelle Pfeiffer, the actress who plays Frances in the film and one of the great movie stars of the back half of the 20th century. From the early 1980s through the mid-’90s, Pfeiffer worked with some of America’s most celebrated auteurs (Scorsese, De Palma, Nichols, Demme) and more than held her own against some of the best working male actors of their era: Pacino (twice), Nicholson (twice), Bridges (Jeff and Beau), Malkovich, Gibson, Connery, not to mention her role as the definitive Catwoman to Keaton’s Batman. She can sell a line as well or better than anyone in the industry and can command a frame’s focus like the Golden Age stars of yore. Her compulsive watchability rendered her one of the most compelling actresses of her generation.
Pfeiffer has largely dictated the terms of her career, including starting and dissolving a production company in the 1990s and freely taking sabbaticals from acting to raise her children in the early 2000s. She’s appropriately choosey about the roles she accepts and sparingly grants interviews with journalists, preferring not to discuss either her personal life or her performances in detail. Her decision to stay behind the scenes has lent her an air of gravitas, of someone who directs a spotlight rather than chases after it. While she never entirely disappeared from the public eye, audiences were treated to a “Pfeiffer-sance” in 2017, the year she starred in a Sundance drama (Where Is Kyra?) and an HBO film opposite Robert De Niro (The Wizard of Lies) and had supporting roles in Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! and Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express. This year she has found another intriguing vehicle for her to return to the screen.
French Exit provides Pfeiffer with a weighty comedic role that allows her to flex her acerbic speech muscles and generate her magnetism. In the hands of a less proficient actress, Frances Price’s icy disposition or her standoffish manner could be alienating—just another rich eccentric asshole. Instead, Pfeiffer turns Frances into an unexpectedly endearing woman, someone with deep reserves of mystery, whose peculiar principles, especially with regard to her reckless spending of finite funds, slowly clarify themselves and accrue weight over the course of the film. Neither Jacobs nor DeWitt counts on Pfeiffer’s looks or charm to make the character interesting. Frances captivates with her own innate sparkly, and Pfeiffer effortlessly elevates what’s on the page. It’s Frances who would use the heel of an expensive shoe to crush up some Valium to sedate her cat so she can sneak him into France, but it’s Pfeiffer who instills that behavior with the caustic grace it would otherwise lack.
In DeWitt’s work, characters don’t move through a predetermined plot. Instead, they shape the direction of the narrative either through choices befitting their well-defined personalities or by revealing more of themselves over time. This gives DeWitt’s writing the feeling of spontaneity, as if it flies by the seat of its pants, but it’s really a matter of his gradually stripping away his characters’ mystique until only their core selves remain. He previously collaborated with Jacobs on the film Terri, which follows the eponymous overweight teenager (Jacob Wysocki), who bonds with his assistant principal, Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly), during an acute depressive cycle. Despite the conventional premise, DeWitt dutifully avoids coming-of-age clichés by following the old maxim “What would the character do?” to its logical end. Terri and Fitzgerald might have constrained home lives and operate at the behest of other people, but DeWitt emphasizes that they make their own decisions, and those decisions ultimately control the film’s direction, which enlivens what might otherwise be an overly familiar self-acceptance tale. Similarly, French Exit develops around the dual actions of Frances and son Malcolm as they dwell in a borrowed apartment and aimlessly meander Parisian streets. Frances’s bankruptcy is the catalyst for this, but her decisions sculpt the film’s structure.
DeWitt’s knack for writing clever, florid dialogue also finds purchase in French Exit. When she takes in the glum look of Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) at breakfast, Frances asks if he was “driven to insomnia by the violence of your muse?” After being told by a new acquaintance, Mme. Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey), that her husband choked and died on a piece of lamb, Frances remarks, “The gamy meats somehow summon the fact of the animal’s existence, which puts me in the mind of its death. Whereas a steak is simply a steak.” Later, Mme. Reynard asks Malcolm, with little provocation, if he ever felt “that you’ve had adulthood thrust upon you at too young an age and that you’re still essentially a child mimicking the behaviors of the grown-ups all around you so they won’t uncover the meager contents of your heart?” DeWitt lifts most of the dialogue from his novel, and this has certainly had a divisive effect, at least if you go by the film’s mixed critical reception. (Words like “quirk” and “disaffected” and “artificial” recur in the reviews.) The comedy operates on a specific frequency that an audience will either hear and appreciate or dismiss as overwrought or pretentious. Yet, the ensemble of character actors who people it imbue DeWitt’s words with an offbeat panache, embracing the script’s self-consciousness while investing it with emotional realism. It’s a tricky gambit, but French Exit never acts like it’s for everyone, which in turn gives it a sly confidence that proves winning.
French Exit would have satisfied if it just offered chic characters delivering witty bons mots, but the film also takes a wayward path to the human heart. DeWitt mentions Frances’s death wish in the form of a joke early in the film (“My plan was to die before the money runs out, but I kept and keep not dying,” she informs her money manager), yet he buries the gravity of this impulse until its second half. Frances sees no reason to exist beyond her means. Rather than behaving frugally, however, she takes a purposefully rash approach to ridding herself of the money by over-tipping waiters and leaving generous gifts for the homeless. Pfeiffer never lends Frances a one-dimensionally tragic edge, nor does she give her desire to prematurely die any outsized glamour. Instead, she infuses the character with a charming inevitability and a smirking fearlessness that comes from a bold life well spent.
Jacobs and DeWitt eventually reframe French Exit’s charming aimlessness by stressing Frances’s resolve to provide for her son outside of the financial sphere. Since Frances can’t leave Malcolm any money, she bequeaths him an unconventional family formed by blood relations, romantic encounters, and serendipitous intersections. French Exit begins as a two-hander between Pfeiffer and Hedges, but it slowly accumulates characters until the Parisian apartment where Frances and Malcolm reside is filled to the brim with friends and acquaintances. There’s Mme. Reynard, who adorably gloms on to the Price family; Frances’s best friend, Joan (Susan Coyne), who owns the apartment; Susan (Imogen Poots), Malcolm’s on-again off-again fiancée; Julius (Isaach De Bankolé), a private investigator; and Madeline (Danielle Macdonald), a cruise ship medium. Frances and Malcolm gather this crew partly out of necessity and partly by accident, and yet they remain because of their hosts’ charm and circuitous generosity. Jacobs’s finest directing moment in French Exit is an understated yet crucial shot that explicitly reveals the sheer number of people in the apartment and implicitly brings Frances’s true motivations to light.
Frances’s familial drive would not carry much weight if the relationship with Malcolm lacked substance, but DeWitt subtly develops it until it amasses power. Jacobs bookends the film with a flashback of Frances whisking a young Malcolm away from his boarding school when his father suddenly dies of a heart attack. Though French Exit primarily centers on their adult relationship, which is unusually close but never cloying, that adolescent memory looms over the film as a strange origin story: a mother guiltily rescuing the child she and her husband sent away, only to quickly realize that he’s magnetic all on his own. Pfeiffer excels at conveying Frances’s stylish remove and putting her own spin on French Exit’s humor, but her finest acting moment in the film, and the one that demonstrates the actress’s considerable talent once again, occurs when she responds to Malcolm’s query about why she liberated him from the school: “I didn’t know you were you. I’d have come right away if I had. I’d never have let you go in the first place.” Pfeiffer delivers this with a surprising softness, with only her tear-filled eyes to give away the game, and almost instantaneously places Frances’s relationship with her son in a new light. To repay Malcolm for invigorating the second (and third) acts of her life, and to rid him of the sour taste of an indifferent father, Frances assembles a troupe of warm-hearted friends to look after him when she’s gone. It’s all a dearly departed queen could ever want for her young prince with no kingdom to his name.