A quirky comedy/drama that takes a melancholy look at New York’s upper class.
French Exit tells the story of aging widowed Manhattan socialite, Frances (played by Michelle Pfeiffer), who is suddenly confronted with the reality that her wealth has run out. She resolves to cash in the last of her possessions and live out the rest of her days anonymously in Paris, taking her son, Malcolm, and cat, Frank, with her.
Both Frances and Malcolm seem directionless and without a life purpose. In fact, Frances is perpetually frustrated that she has not died before the money ran out, and that still she continues to live each day despite her efforts to tempt fate. And although Malcolm has a very pretty and deeply besotted girlfriend, played by Imogen Poots, he doesn’t make any attempt to keep her around and seems unbothered when his move to Paris separates them. Moreover, both characters seem unbothered about everything, and perhaps this is a result of their financially abundant lifestyle that has numbed their sense of reality. Or perhaps this chronic dissatisfaction is a genetic disposition… it is unclear.
Whatever the reason, the film definitely has a strong atmosphere of melancholia and depression. Although the aesthetic – which includes an abundance of fur and gold – is beautiful to look at, it is evident that something is deeply missing from these lavish lives.
The plot itself is minimal, but the mood and characters is what makes this film interesting. Despite their best efforts to be aloof, Frances and Malcolm collect an eclectic mix of friends on their travels, including a medium and a whacky admirer. Eventually Malcolm’s estranged girlfriend and her new suitor join the group in Paris and the story becomes almost a farce. Before you think things could not get any stranger, it becomes apparent that Frances’ late husband’s spirit may be embodied by their cat, who the group begin to communicate to through their recently acquired medium. And yet still Francis and Malcolm remained unaffected.
Pfeiffer is exceptional as always as she reprises the role of the aging high-society beauty, also featured in films like Chéri and The Age of Innocence. Azazel Jacobs’ direction is unique in that it feels natural but also surreal at the same time, like a Wes Anderson or Woody Allen film. Patrick deWitt’s screenplay, adapted from the navel of the same name, is a little bizarre and features a lot of (possibly intentional) repetitive and naff dialogue in a way that feels stylised.
Overall, French Exit is easy to watch and a pleasant enough experience, perhaps mainly due to Pfeiffer’s glamour and sass, but it can hardly be described as gripping and is mostly forgettable.
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