As far as quirkiness goes there are few films that you will see in 2021 that will match the quirky nature of French Exit. In fact the only way I can describe this film and what it is like is to say – if you don’t like the work of Woody Allen then chances are you are never going to savour what I found made this such a delightful film.
It was a funny feeling watching this film amongst an audience when the ages and genders differed so much. There were times when even in the cinema darkness where I could see the puzzled glances of some of the audience as those of us who love the absurdist drama element of films like this laughed out loud were in sheer delight while they were waiting for the end credits to roll. Yes, I will admit that a film which sees a talking cat with a spirit trapped inside and an apartment where people come and never want to leave is not a film for all – it is certainly an acquired taste.
Directed by Azazel Jacobs (Terri) and based on a novel by Patrick DeWitt French Exit follow the mother and son duo of Frances (Michelle Pfeiffer – Hairspray) and Malcolm Price (Lucas Hedges – Boy Erased). The strange Frances has made a name for herself in New York as someone you shouldn’t meddle with. There are strange stories about what she did when she discovered her husband’s body and most people know she is afraid to tell you what she thinks of you in public.
Then there is Malcolm who is recently engaged to the charming student Susan (Imogen Poots – Vivarium) but he is too afraid to tell his mother as he isn’t sure how she will respond. Of course none of that matters though when Frances finds out that she will be left with nothing so decides to scrape whatever money she can and move to France dragging Malcolm along with her, something Susan says she can never forgive him for.
The trip to France is then thwart with more mystery as Malcolm sleeps with a witch who can accurately predict the future, Madeline (Danielle McDonald – Patti Cake$), while their arrival in France sees their cat, Small Frank, who is inhabited by the spirit of their late husband/father running away. This is all to the amusement of Mme. Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey – Sully) who welcomes the amusement among her dull existence in Paris.
Yes, as you can see from the plot this is a strange, strange film but somehow it all comes together. The screenplay allows for comedy to come from strange moments like Malcolm being dragged into a ship’s morgue by a doctor losing his mind and the hilarity of finding a sex toy in a single woman’s fridge. You just never know with an absurdist film like this where the next laugh is going to come from and that is what should hold the audience’s interest throughout – it certainly held mine.
I will admit that the dead husband inside Small Frank does at times push the film to the limits of what is ‘believable’ especially when it begins to communicate with with Frances and Malcolm but seeing a majority of the film’s humour and dramatic moments work I will let that slide.
In fact it would be wrong to end this review without mentioning the drama and the emotion of the film. This is not a laughfest from start to finish – yes there are moments of true comedy but this is also a film where you find yourself feeling sorry for the likes of Frances and Malcolm. Yes, Frances is damaged but you can see that under her selfish veneer she does mean well, while for most of the film you are just waiting for Malcolm to finally realise he is going to have to grow up and fight for Susan if he still wants her.
Michelle Pfeiffer is a delight to watch throughout the film and you can tell that she had a ball being able to play a character as crazy as Frances. Despite their difference in experience she is well matched by Hedges who doesn’t let the fact that he is acting alongside a screen legend overawe him. Their performances alongside that of Danielle Macdonald, who steals every scene she is in, are part of what makes this film so memorable.
Brilliant performances and a witty script made me fall in love with French Exit and I would say it is a must see for those who love their cinema on the strange side.