One of the year’s most surreal, unique offerings
FRENCH EXIT (2021)
Those that know me know that my adoration for Michelle Pfeiffer has no boundaries, but, and I can say without bias that despite a stellar career now in its fifth decade - which include such accolades as 3 Oscar nominations and 8 Golden Globe nominations (including 1 win) - she constantly still seems to be somewhat of an underrated force in the industry. The last few years have seen her deliver some of the bravest work she’s been afforded (her supporting turn in the divisive mother! and her gut-wrenching lead performance in the criminally under-seen Where Is Kyra? are prime examples) and with French Exit, likely to remain as one of the year’s most surreal, unique offerings, she’s finally earning the attention that so many of her previous undervalued performances deserved. There’s a reason that Pfeiffer has been dubbed “a national treasure” and that she delivers a “role for which she will be remembered”, as she truly devours the screen with that signature pursed lip and seductive vocal fry, holding everyone at attention as she consumes the dialogue, settings, and characters around her.
Azazel Jacobs, son of experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs (who has a near-seven hour production to his name, 2004’s Star Spangled to Death), is no stranger to framing conventional material with a more careful, elevated eye. French Exit, based off the novel by Patrick deWitt, has a standard story at its core, but Jacobs places his trust in the surreal personality of the proceedings, as well as his incredibly capable cast who all surrender to the material in a manner that feels alarmingly organic. Heightened characters and an arc involving a black cat that seems to be inhabited by the spirit of a deceased character - just go with it - feel intricately crafted to a degree that the absurdity feels incredibly grounded.
Whilst the outline that French Exit focuses on a New York socialite (Pfeiffer’s Frances Price), close-to-penniless, widowed, and preparing for the end of her reign (so to speak) - when her accountants asks why she didn’t make better financial decisions, she answers that her plan “was to die before the money ran out but I kept and keep not dying” - doesn’t exactly sound like the most exciting narrative, DeWitt’s dialogue, equally tragic as it is tongue-in-cheek, injects a bite into proceedings, which gives way to the more absurd, near-farcical temperament the film ultimately delights in.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
Unsurprisingly, Pfeiffer dominates every second she’s on screen. Whilst Frances could be almost defined as a caricature on paper - her dialogue and quirks could’ve very easily overwhelmed an actress of lesser talent - Pfeiffer embodies her with a heart, something rather ironic given the character’s penchant for acidic retorts. And because Pfeiffer is so good, the ensemble around her - all incredibly capable actors in their own right - are all elevated to her level, resulting in a truly masterful effort from all involved. Lucas Hedges, managing to make his disinterested monotone delivery an art form as Frances’s son, Malcolm, and Danielle Macdonald as a jaded gypsy (or “the fucked witch”, as Frances describes her) prove suitable standouts among the eventual chaos, but, next to the terse sarcasm of Pfeiffer, the enthusiastic Valerie Mahaffey as a chatty neighbour, and self-proclaimed Frances admirer, energises the film with a vivacity that so delicately borders on desperation without surrendering to it.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
The film spends the majority of its running time in Paris, bookending in New York, and as glamorous as those cities are respectively, and by no means do they appear unattractive here, no effort has been put into framing the cities as romantically as expected. The cities are secondary to the tragic comedy unfolding within the expansive walls of Frances’s Manhattan mansion or the Parisian apartment that soon houses the various oddball characters that are drawn in by her, at times, poisonous allure.
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
Maintaining a sense of realism amongst its surrealistic nature, there’s an almost immersive-cum-invasive temperament adhered to when keeping remnants of characters in certain scenes, even if they aren’t physically present. When Malcolm suggests his mother look in the freezer of their overly-familiar neighbour so she can view the cold oddity inside (a prime example of the film succeeding in its ability to earn subtle laughs) we remain on his face, though we hear Frances’s footsteps as she travels to and from the kitchen, whilst another scene involving the aforementioned neighbour and the unexpected choking on her drink she suffers due to Frances’s delivery of the word “carnally” allows an entire conversation to play out whilst, ever so faintly in the background, we hear her clear her throat and gain composure - the character essentially having her own scene away from the film’s focus. It’s the simplest of these true-to-life additives that see French Exit wholly realise itself as a film dedicated to normalising the inane.
Wickedly funny at times, though always harbouring a sadness that layers the film beyond its odd premise, French Exit is a truly masterful product that furthers Jacobs’s unique storytelling abilities, whilst maintaining Pfeiffer’s status as one of the most chameleonic performers of her generation.