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To Paris with love – ‘French Exit’

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Most of the time, movies are relatively straightforward. Sure, you have your odd arthouse auteurs and the like, but usually, films work in the way you expect. You go to a drama, you expect emotional impact. You see a comedy, you’re ready to laugh. You walk into a superhero movie, you get superheroes. Horror, scares. Thriller … thrills.

But every once in a while, you find a movie that gleefully upends your understanding of the world in which it operates. It doesn’t actually change anything, yet you’re left with fundamental questions about both what you’ve seen so far and what is yet to come.

That’s the kind of movie that you get with “French Exit,” a smart, engaging film directed by Azazel Jacobs from a screenplay that Patrick deWitt adapted from his own 2018 novel of the same name. It is a dry and witty comedy that takes a surreal turn, introducing strange and unexpected elements that nevertheless only serve to enhance the overall experience of the film.

With an absolutely exceptional cast led by Michelle Pfeiffer, this movie is not necessarily what you might expect it to be, but by subverting your expectations, it gives you an experience that is arguably far better than the one you thought you were getting.

Pfeiffer stars as Frances Price, a New York City socialite whose seemingly never-ending financial reserves are finally depleted. Despite the efforts of many around her to help guide her toward fiscal responsibility, Frances – a widow – simply continued living the high society life to which she had grown accustomed.

Her closest companion is her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges, “Let Them All Talk”), who has been by her side steadily since the passing of his father Franklin (Tracy Letts, “Little Women”). However, Malcolm is slowly starting to emerge from beneath his mother’s eccentric affections; he’s even engaged to be married to Susan (Imogen Poots, “The Father”), although he hasn’t actually told his mother yet – a point of understandable contention with his fiancée.

The money is gone. Frances, with nowhere else to turn, sells as much as she can on the down low in an effort to at least partially avoid the many looming creditors. Luckily, her childhood friend Joan (Susan Coyne, TV’s “Cardinal”) just happens to have a spare apartment gathering dust in Paris and offers it up as a place for Frances to get out of the city and lay low.

Frances assumes that Malcolm will come with her; much to Susan’s chagrin, he does.

The pair make the trans-Atlantic crossing via cruise ship, bringing little more than their clothes, the piles of Euros from the impromptu illicit sales and their cat, Small Frank. En route, Malcolm meets Madeleine (Danielle Macdonald, “I Am Woman”), the ship’s medium who may have actual legitimate paranormal gifts.

In Paris, Frances and Malcolm … don’t do much of anything, really. They meet a fellow ex-pat, a longtime Paris resident named Mme. Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey, TV’s “Big Sky”) who is intimately familiar with Frances’s reputation in society circles. They kick around the city, gradually going through the money they have left.

But when the cat gets out and gets lost, we learn some things. We learn that the cat is named Small Frank, after the deceased Franklin. And thanks to the return of Madeleine the Medium, we learn something else – that Small Frank is named after Franklin because he IS Franklin, or at least the reincarnated spirit of Franklin. And thanks to Madeleine, he can now directly communicate with everyone – a fact that everyone involved remarkably takes in stride.

From there, it’s up to Frances to try and work through just how she wants the rest of her life to go. It’s about redefining her relationships and whether she genuinely wants to keep moving forward, and if she doesn’t … what then?

“French Exit” surprised me. I hadn’t heard much, but what I had heard was pretty positive. I hadn’t heard about the surreal mid-movie turn (and it’s worth noting it does stay weird; I’m not going to go into details, but people keep showing up and strange stuff keeps happening), but I’ve noticed that that particular shift isn’t being treated like a secret. And honestly, I feel like knowing about the cat reincarnation is just going to make people more likely to want to see it. It would have worked on me.

One of the primary keys to successful surrealism is to craft a world in which the strangeness is treated as normal by those within said strangeness. Azazel Jacobs displays a particular knack for bringing that sense of groundedness to the weirdness; despite the slight skewing of everyone in this film, the fact that the skewing is consistent allows us to be immersed in that strangeness. There’s no metacommentary or winking or anything of that sort, and by treating the world of the film as genuine, those skewed aspects are that much easier to engage with.

It’s a striking aesthetic as well, a film packed with interesting angles and lighting choices that both soften and sharpen the omnipresent oddity of the proceedings. Jacobs is the son of noted experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs; one can see some of the influence of the father on the son.

Pfeiffer is phenomenal – the Golden Globes are a joke, but she definitely earned her nomination this year. She’s just so wonderful, so fully invested in crafting this character that is deeply weird and yet utterly relatable. To bring this sort of fallen socialite to life had to be difficult, yet Pfeiffer manages it with apparent ease. Hedges is one of the best young actors of his generation – do yourself a favor and check out the run he’s been on over the past five years – and mines sympathy from a bundle of codependent neuroses and flickers of Oedipal issues. And the two of them are just a joy together, just wonderful chemistry. Coyne and Mahaffey are great. So too are Macdonald and Poots. And Letts is a hoot – you’ll see.

“French Exit” surprised me. For the first half, it’s a fairly straightforward film, albeit one where something that you can’t put your finger on is just a bit off. And then you find out what that something is, leaving you to both embrace the weirdness coming your way and reflect on what you already saw with a new perspective. I’m still thinking about it, and to me, that’s quality filmmaking.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 29 March 2021 12:06

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