Novel-turned-film French Exit travels all the way to Paris on its quirky charm

Michelle Pfeiffer clearly having a ball with the dialogue

“You know what a cliché is? It’s a story so fine and thrilling that it’s grown old in its hopeful retelling. People tell it. Not so many live it.”

That’s Michelle Pfeiffer, savouring the taste of one of the better lines from Patrick deWitt’s 2018 novel French Exit, now adapted by the author and directed by Azazel Jacobs, who also shot DeWitt’s 2011 screenplay Terri.

They don’t all fall so trippingly from the tongue, mind you. Some of the arch dialogue stumbles. Who says: “Was I that repellant a creature to you?” (And to a dead parent, no less?) Similarly, the post/riposte of “How do you do?” and “I do very well” probably works better in print.

But Pfeiffer is clearly up to the task, shaking off the tragicomedic cobwebs after a couple of spins in the Disney machines that were Maleficent and Marvel’s Ant-Man. Here’s one more line, almost Walken-esque in its delivery: “My life has fallen completely to pieces and I’m up … set about it.”
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Pfeiffer stars as Frances Price, an aging socialite on the brink of bankruptcy. On the advice of her lawyer she sells off a few heirlooms for a fat pile of Euros, then heads with her adult son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) to Paris, where a friend has offered her an apartment to live in, rent-free.

Walks a fine line between romanticizing Paris and turning it into just another dirty city

Hedges is the movie’s weak link, but I’ve so loved his work in everything from Manchester By the Sea to Lady Bird to Boy Erased, Ben Is Back and the recent how-was-it-not-Oscar-nominated Let Them All Talk that I’m going to lay this at the feet of the director.

The actor is more wardrobe than personality in this one, smartly dressed but delivering every line (including the above mentioned “repellent creature”) in the same deadpan monotone. It’s no wonder his fiancée (Imogen Poots) quickly moves on when he tells her he’s off to Paris the next day for who knows how long.

Hedges got his start in a couple of Wes Anderson movies a decade back, and there’s a similar vibe to French Exit, from the precise camerawork and framing to the score, composed by Nicholas DeWitt, but sounding an awful lot like Anderson regular Mark Mothersbaugh.
Which isn’t to say French Exit doesn’t have its own style. It ably walks a fine line between romanticizing Paris and turning it into just another dirty city. I don’t think we see the Eiffel Tower once, for instance, but we do come across an oddly antique looking (and functional!) phone booth on the edge of the Canal Saint-Martin. And there’s a fantastic scene in which Frances finds a way to annoy a seemingly unflappable, remarkably rude waiter.
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This is the point in a review where I might give you a plot synopses, but that’s not an easy task with French Exit, which relies more on its quirky cast than any great quest to move things along. Frances brings her pet cat with her to Paris, smuggling it aboard the ocean liner that takes her to Europe. Soon after arrival, however, it runs off – a problem for Frances, who admits she doesn’t like the animal, but that it contains the soul of her dead husband, voiced during séances by Tracy Letts.
The film is best enjoyed by submitting to its peculiar charms and not asking too many questions. Though there are many you could. Like why is the ship’s doctor (played by I’ve-seen-that-guy-somewhere Vlasta Vrana) so easygoing with his tour of the liner’s morgue? Would such a refrigerated room really carry a sign that reads “chill zone”? And is two deaths a day actually “industry standard for an Atlantic crossing,” as he puts it? Seems high, but he sounds very confident. I’m going to assume DeWitt did his homework before embarking on the novel and subsequent movie. French Exit knows how to make an entrance, and that’s enough for me.
French Exit opens April 2 in select cinemas.
3.5 stars out of 5

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