Someone once asked what it profits a person if they gain the whole world but lose their soul.
Directed by Azazel Jacobs, French Exit attempts to explore this question by following the exploits of Frances Price (Michelle Pfeiffer), an aging Manhattan socialite who has just been informed that her husband’s massive financial resources have finally been exhausted. Depressed and contemplating her death, she opts to sell her possessions and burn through her remaining money in Paris with her son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges). Despite having plans to marry his girlfriend, Susan (Imogen Poots), Malcolm can never stand up to his mother and acquiesces to her request. Feeling lost and alone, the two attempt to start over in their unfamiliar surroundings.
Adapted by Peter DeWitt from his own novel, French Exit feels like a mix between Wes Anderson and the work of the Coen Brothers. Sharply written, the dialogue has the bite of an off-Broadway play, filled with double-meanings and existential arguments. Featuring quirky characters and unusual situations, the film also keeps its characters at an emotional distance from its audience. However, unlike even the Coen’s darkest works, Exit somehow carries very little joy within it. Though moments of dark humour are present, the film’s pacing and performances keep the film from fully sparking with the viewer. While the film’s eccentric humour often works, the characters often remain at such an emotional distance that they become difficult to connect with as a viewer. (Even the always engaging Lucas Hedges seems muted in this particular role.)
Though the film doesn’t always pop, the one aspect of it that works throughout is Pfeiffer. As the dissatisfied widow, Pfeiffer is absolutely captivating to watch. Though many other actresses would play Frances as a hateful beast, there remains a compassionate core to her performance that somehow makes her character likeable. While she never loses her ‘edge’, we also see behind the façade to the hurts that lie underneath. In other words, though her character maintains an exterior of stone, Pfeiffer allows Frances to reveal a certain sense of brokenness that makes her relatable. (And, I must confess, there’s a certain sense of meta-irony about the former Batman Returns star struggling in her relationship with a black cat.)
At the core of French Exit lies the gap between luxury and love. Having suffered in a loveless marriage, Frances has been drained of her soul. Kept afloat physically because of her wealth, her empty heart makes her almost anxious to see it all disappear. Having the world at her feet (for now) but haunted by her past, she struggles to allow anyone into her life. As a result, outside of the domineering relationship with her son, she isolates herself emotionally. To Frances, her waning finances symbolize her deflating, loveless life and she yearns for it to end.
This sort of existential malaise is pervasive amongst the cast of the film as they float through their meaningless existence. Sex has little emotional impact, nor does commitment. Money is merely a means to an end. Although they all have some experience with relationships, one could argue that none of the character have any concept of what it means to experience or offer love. (In fact, the character who arguably seems closest is Susan’s fiancé Tom, who states that he once thought he knew what love was but was wrong until they began their relationship.)
Yet what’s interesting about this group is that they also yearn for community. Despite the fact that they’re almost all ‘loners’, they seem to come alive as they move into the apartment one-by-one. As this group begins to solidify, their hearts begin to open, allowing for intimacy between them to bloom. Though these characters seem soulless, they eventually begin to come alive when they are together. Suddenly, the meaninglessness of their world begins to crumble. Loneliness gives way to safety and security. Isolation leans into unity. Although there is still a pervasive sense of privileged malaise surrounding them, somehow their lives become more bearable (even hopeful). For this motley crew, supportive love melts their frozen hearts and (almost) brings a new beginning to their relationships.
Anchored by a stunning performance by Michelle Pfeiffer, French Exit provides enough witty banter and outrageous characters to qualify for a recommendation. While the film lacks the energy of Anderson’s films, there’s a certain amount of charm within its story that makes it enjoyable. However, it’s also likely that this is one Exit you will only want to travel through once.
French Exit is available in theatres on Friday, April 2nd, 2021.