Michelle Pfeiffer leads ‘French Exit,’ the closing night film at the New York Film Festival from director Azazel Jacobs.
French Exit is anything but traditional. In fact, it is possibly at its best when going completely mad. Adapted from his own novel, writer Patrick deWitt has built a series of characters and a world that is endlessly unique. And the crowning achievement of the film is actress Michelle Pfeiffer in one of her finest roles.
Pfeiffer stars as Frances Price, a late-in-life widow who discovers herself suddenly broke. She takes her son Malcolm, played by a typically game Lucas Hedges, and they together flee New York City for an apartment in autumnal Paris. Along with them, they take their family’s cat… which happens to be possessed by the ghost of Frances’s late husband Frank. These are just some of the strange characters in the film. There is the cruise ship psychic (Danielle McDonald) who can tell you exactly when and how you’ll die. There is the similarly widowed American-Expat Mme. Reynard, who becomes quick friends with Frances. Private investigator Julius is played by Ivorian-French superstar Isaach de Bankole in one of the smaller but stranger roles. And the cast gets more absurd from there.
Director Azazel Jacobs, who previously made the Tracy Letts-starring The Lovers, does a fine job with the strange source material. The comedic language of the film is allowed to shine through, as is the clever writing of deWitt. That said, I don’t think that any version of this movie that starred Pfeiffer couldn’t be a movie I would love.
Michelle Pfeiffer is one of the best actresses in Hollywood, but for too long she hasn’t been able to star in films of this kind. Now she gets a starring role worthy of her deadpan talents. Pfeiffer is charming without ever even cracking a smile, a talent few actors are capable of. Her dynamic with the cat that plays “Small Frank” is brilliant, somehow seeming both maternal and romantic… with a cat. A flashback when she has to tell her son (played by a child actor) that his father died could be heartbreaking. Instead, Pfeiffer mines the moment for humor. Something similar happens when she finds the corpse of her husband as she heads out on a planned trip. In many ways, her character reminded me of Isabelle Huppert in the film Elle, which is about as high a compliment I can pay an actress.
Jacobs and company didn’t design French Exit to be for everyone. deWitt writes with a uniquely acerbic voice. The author also wrote the novel of The Sisters Brothers, another story that was turned into an occasionally tough-to-enjoy movie. But I can promise that within the first five minutes of French Exit, you’ll know whether it is for you. Frances bemoans her loss of money to her accountant with a sigh. Her plan, Frances explains, was to die before the money ran out. “I kept not dying,” Michelle Pfeiffer deadpans to the camera, “and here I am.” Thankfully, French Exit is right there with her.
French Exit debuts nationwide on February 12th, 2021. The good news: 2020 Oscar-eligibility will only end on February 28th for this strange year. Join me, won’t you, in campaigning for Michelle Pfeiffer’s first Oscar.