A purrrrrfect vessel to showcase the incomparable Michelle Pfeiffer’s acting chops–complete with a–you guessed it–black cat! French Exit gets its wide exclusively theatrical release this Friday, and if you are a fan of Pfeiffer, then you don’t want to miss this whimsical, existential motion picture that’s as quirky and aimless as Frances (Pfeiffer) and Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), yet possesses an incredible charm that will hook you from the very beginning when Michelle Pfeiffer waltzes into her son’s prep school in a mink fur-lined trench coat that ostensibly gives her a larger-the-life power and protection from judgmental eyes of Manhattan high society.
Aging New York socialite Frances’ (Pfeiffer’s) is in dire straits, beset by scandal and impending bankruptcy. Her accountant tells her that she has burnt through her inheritance, and is now broke. Frances isn’t alone, she has her aimless son Malcolm, but he is of no help due to his perpetual mire in a permanent state of arrested development. Frances is forced to sell everything. Putting penury and pariahdom behind them, along with their car, the two quirky social outcasts decide to cut their losses and take the French exit. One ocean voyage later, the curious trio land in their beloved Paris, which will serve as a backdrop not for love or romance, but self-destruction and economic ruin—to riotous effect. Frances takes the last of her money and spends frivolously as she has accepted the fact that she is a cliche, but in that, she is timeless.
French Exit is based upon the novel by the same name written by the screenwriter Patrick deWitt and directed by Azazel Jacobs. While the film does not follow a typical plot structure, it does deliver a story stressing the emotional and psychological journeys of our central characters and supporting cast, which often stress individualism. Furthermore, the film delivers darkly comedic moments that explore the human condition and even human existence in and of itself. The screenwriting is filled with hilarious irony and sarcasm that often says exactly what we are thinking within a similar conflict, as the audience, but rarely have the chutzpah to state aloud. Jacobs’ and deWitt’s combination of surrealism, subjectivity, and running commentary by Frances and Malcolm create a sort of narrative ambiguity in the sense that you will undoubtedly ask questions of the film that are only ever partly answered, if answered at all. Usually this could run the risk of frustrating the audience, but it’s the off-beat comedy and Pfeiffer’s command of the screen that truly anchor this avant-garde motion picture.
Before discussing the film’s biggest selling point and sole reason to watch–Michelle Pfeiffer–I want to spend some time on the title itself, but more specifically what it represents. While on the surface the title may seem to be an extension of the slang French leave, “a departure from a location or event without informing others or without seeking approval,” which does describe the manner in which Frances and Malcolm leave New York and how Frances dramatically exits the film, it’s actually a creative nod to the style of filmmaking that is at the soul of this picture–French New Wave. In both its cinematic and literary (extrapolating from the evidence at hand) forms, French Exit is a product of the French New Wave movement in cinema, which was popularized following World War II and the massive influx of American films (most famously noir). Jacob’s vision for this existential exploration brings a fresh, auteur approach to deWitt’s screenplay using his camera-stylo to craft stylistic scenes through montage (French for assembly). Moreover, many of these shots and scenes and mesmerize the audience with excellent use of dramatic imagery that plays with audience expectation.
Throughout the film, it’s clear that Jacobs’ takes inspiration from the films of the French New Wave era evidence in everything from the blocking of the characters, the emotionally-driven scene sequences, intentionally awkward pacing. Further evidence of the inspiration taken from French New Wave includes a sort of cinematic defiance–a film that refuses to live by conventional diegetic rules. Much like Jacobs’ flagrantly defies cinematic expectations placed upon the artistic medium by scholars like yours truly, the character of Frances also doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks about her, her son, or her cat. She doesn’t care that she isn’t relatable. You will take her or leave her. But we all know that we are going to take her, because of the outstanding, nuanced performance by Pfeiffer.
I love this line: “My plan was to die before the money ran out, but I kept and keep not dying, so here I am.” It’s but merely the tip of the iceberg of delicious character study! Jacobs’ provides a role for Pfeiffer that she’s not quite had the opportunity to play before. What I love about the character of Frances (hmm, could this be nod to French New Wave filmmaker Francois Truffaut?) is that she isn’t quite a diva, but a sophisticated, entitled, and savagely articulate socialite, with a hint of camp. While we have seen Pfeiffer in roles that have given us a glimpse into this type of character, her role in Murder on the Orient Express for example, and had the pleasure of enjoying her bewitching role in the fantasty-comedy Stardust, and the showcase of larger-then-life camp in her definitive role as Catwoman in Batman Returns, Pfeiffer channels all these memorable characters yet finds a way of grounding Frances in reality.
It’s not only the words she says, but it’s how she says them. Everything line is delivered with razor-sharp precision accompanied by an unmistakable nuance. Not limited to Frances’ dialogue, but her entire body is completely engaged in every single frame. And the manner in which she sprays perfume or wields her cigarette like a rapier, she commands your attention. In the same way that Jacobs’ film itself is a bit like controlled chaos, Pfeiffer’s portrayal of Frances is very much the same. Whether she’s drunkenly slinging kitchen knives or lighting floral arrangements on fire when the server neglects to provide timely service, Pfeiffer ensures that we not soon forget Frances.
French New Wave meets screwball comedy in this adaptation that was tricky to execute. Fortunately for audiences, Jacobs succeeds brilliantly! Even though the story’s weird pacing and tonal shifts marches to the beat of its own drum, this nearly one-room play delivers laughs, thoughtful moments, and the kind of absolutely ridiculousness we sometimes need! For all this film does uniquely well, it’s that unique comedic tone that wont’ likely resonate with everyone. However the ensemble cast of off-beat characters craving human connection will resonate with audiences, and prompt them to enthusiastically embrace the film. And it’s that desire for human connection, which universally appeals to us all. connection lends it a universal appeal that deserves to be enthusiastically embraced. If for no other reason, this film provides an excuse to enjoy 110 minutes of the glorious Oscar-deserved Michelle Pfeiffer.
Ryan teaches screenwriting and film studies at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!
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