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.
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