Review: ‘French Exit,’ starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges

February 18, 2021

by Carla Hay

Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges in “French Exit” (Photo by Tobias Datum/Sony Pictures Classics)

“French Exit”

Directed by Azazel Jacobs

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City and Paris, the comedy/drama “French Exit” features an almost all-white cast of characters (with one black person and one Asian person) representing the wealthy, middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: An American socialite widow and her young adult son relocate from New York City to Paris after she loses her fortune.

Culture Audience: “French Exit” will appeal primarily to fans of star Michelle Pfeiffer and to people who like stories about drastic life changes, but the movie’s abrupt shift from realism into becoming a wacky supernatural story might annoy some viewers.

Pictured from left to right (in front) Danielle Macdonald, Valerie Mahaffey and Imogen Poots; (in back) Isaach de Bankolé, Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Coyne in “French Exit” (Photo by Lou Scamble/Sony Pictures Classics)

The comedy/drama film “French Exit” starts out as a straightforward story about two Americans who’ve relocated to Paris, but then takes a bizarre turn that involves a psychic, a missing cat and a plot that becomes about reincarnation. Despite impressive performances from co-stars Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges, “French Exit” is a messy, uneven film that tries to be too quirky for its own good. The characters in the movie act more and more ridiculous until the story reaches a very uninspired and tepid conclusion.

Directed by Azazel Jacobs and written by Patrick DeWitt (who adapted the screenplay from his 2018 novel of the same name), “French Exit” begins with a flashback scene of the story’s two main characters. Haughty socialite Frances Price (played by Pfeiffer) and her 12-year-old son Malcolm (played by Eddie Holland) hastily leave the boarding school where Frances has arrived to withdraw his enrollment. Frances has taken Malcolm back home to live with her in their spacious New York City townhouse.

The next time that viewers see Frances and Malcolm (played by Hedges), it’s now 12 years later. Frances’ husband Franklin (who was Malcolm’s father) has been dead for 12 years, and Frances has run out of the money that she inherited. She’s also been told that the house is in foreclosure and she’s going to be locked out of her home in a matter of weeks. It’s implied that either Franklin left behind a lot of debts that Frances (who is now 60 years old) could not pay and/or that Frances racked up a lot of debts on her own after Frank’s death. At one point in the movie, Frances says she’s never worked a day in her life and she has no intention of ever doing so.

After Frances gets over the shock and denial that she’s no longer wealthy and is about to be homeless, she takes her accountant’s advice to sell all of her jewelry, artwork and many other possessions, in order to get enough cash for the near future. Frances has almost no friends, but she has the good luck of having a socialite confidante named Joan (played by Susan Coyne), who generously offers her unused Paris apartment as a place for Frances and Malcolm to stay.

Frances accepts the offer, even though her pride is wounded by having to take this charitable handout. Frances is so broke that she can’t afford to pay the $600 salary that she owes to her maid Sylvia (played by Christine Lan), who demands to be paid in cash because Sylvia’s most recent paycheck from Frances was returned due to insufficient funds. Frances doesn’t have the cash, but Malcolm does, so he pays the $600 that’s owed. Sylvia isn’t going to be working for Frances for much longer anyway, because Frances has told Malcolm that they could be living in Paris “perhaps for the rest of our lives.”

Meanwhile, Malcolm is dealing with some problems in his love life. He has an on-again/off-again girlfriend named Susan (played by Imogen Poots), who’s slightly older and more emotionally mature than he is. Malcolm and Susan are secretly engaged, but he’s been afraid to tell his mother Frances. In fact, Malcolm tells Frances one day over breakfast that he and Susan are in a “holding pattern,” as in, his relationship with Susan is now on pause.

It becomes very obvious early on in the movie that Frances and Malcolm have a very co-dependent relationship. Frances is the type of domineering mother who probably doesn’t approve of anything that would result in Malcolm getting his own place and starting his own independent life. Just like his mother, Malcolm is somewhat of a loner. Unlike his mother, Malcolm is tactful when dealing with people and he doesn’t have a snobbish attitude.

Franklin is never seen in the movie in flashbacks, but his presence looms large over Frances and Malcolm, who talk about him often in this story. His voice is heard later in the movie, with Tracy Letts as the voice of Franklin. Based on what Frances and Malcolm say, Franklin was an emotionally distant and often-cruel husband and father. Frances mentions that her marriage to Franklin started off happy, but then it turned into a love/hate relationship.

Malcolm, who was never close to Franklin, only started to bond with Frances after she took Malcolm away from the boarding school. It’s implied that Frances only did so after Franklin died and she was lonely and needed someone else in the house to live with her. Malcolm is a socially awkward lost soul who clings to his mother for love but knows that his relationship with her can be very unhealthy.

Susan has been pressuring Malcolm to tell Frances that they are engaged, but he keeps postponing telling Frances this news. Malcolm and Susan are on the verge of breaking up when he tells Susan that he and his mother are moving to Paris the next day. Shocked and dismayed, Susan breaks up with Malcolm because she says there’s no point in continuing in the relationship if he’s going to live so far away. She also feels disrespected that Malcolm was keeping their engagement a secret from his mother.

And so, Frances and Malcolm pack up the modest number of their remaining possessions, including their black cat Small Frank, and head to Paris on a cruise ship. Before the trip, Frances converted all of their cash into euros to carry with her. And it’s a stash that gets smaller as the story continues.

During this journey across the Atlantic Ocean, Malcolm meets a woman who calls herself Madeleine the Medium (played by Danielle Macdonald), who works as a fortune teller on the ship. Frances first sees Madeleine giving bad news to an elderly woman, who is sobbing because Madeleine predicted that the woman would die soon. Malcolm is intrigued by Madeleine, and when he sees Madeleine alone at the ship’s bar one night, he strikes up a conversation with her.

At first, Madeleine is standoffish, but eventually she warms up to Malcolm, and they end up having a sexual tryst. She spends the night in the cabin that Malcolm shares with Frances. And the next morning, Frances seems unbothered by this overnight guest because she assumes that Madeleine is just a one-night stand.

And then, things get weird. At the ship’s bar, Malcolm meets a very drunk elderly man named Boris Maurus (played by Vlasta Vrana), who’s the ship’s doctor. Boris chuckles as he tells Malcolm that he wants to show Malcolm something on the ship. Where does Boris takes Malcolm? To the ship’s morgue. Boris explains to Malcolm that it’s not unusual for people to die on a cruise ship, but cruises never advertise this fact.

Boris also points out a recently deceased woman among the bodies and says that Madeleine had predicted that this woman would die. It’s the same woman whom Frances had seen sobbing during a fortune-telling session with Madeleine. Malcolm is predictably uncomfortable with being in the morgue, but he’s too polite to scold Boris for bringing him there. And so, Malcolm gives an awkward thank you to Boris and then makes a hasty exit. The main purpose of this scene, except for being morbid and creepy, is that it lets viewers know that maybe Madeleine’s psychic abilities are real.

When Frances and Malcolm arrive Paris, there’s a somewhat comical scene of them illegally smuggling in Small Frank through customs. (Frances gave the cat a tranquilizer that rendered the cat unconscious, so she’s able to hide the cat in her travel bag.) After Frances and Malcolm settle into Joan’s apartment, they mostly keep to themselves, simply because they don’t know anyone in the area. It’s not the first time Frances has been to Paris, but the last time she was there was when she was on a trip with Franklin in happier times.

Malcolm gets lonely and he calls Susan to invite her to visit him in Paris. He’s hurt and surprised to find out that she’s gotten back together with a boyfriend named Tom (played by Daniel di Tomasso), whom she dated when Susan and Tom were in college. Susan drops hints that it’s a rebound relationship on her part because she doesn’t want to be alone and because Tom is very much in love with her.

Malcolm reacts as if Susan has been cheating on him, by telling her that he still thinks of Susan as fiancée. It’s a hypocritical reaction, considering that Malcolm was acting very single and available when he hooked up with Madeleine. Malcolm also doesn’t tell Susan about Madeleine in this conversation. Susan is annoyed by Malcolm’s possessiveness, and she asks Malcolm not to contact her again.

When Malcolm and Frances first arrive in Paris, the movie drags a little in showing how bored and lonely they are. In one scene, Frances and Malcolm have lunch together in a fairly empty café. When they’re ready to leave, Malcolm asks the waiter to get the bill for the meal. The waiter rudely tells Malcolm to wait.

Malcolm and Frances watch as the waiter casually jokes around with a co-worker, as if he’s on a break and doesn’t need to attend to any customers. Frances gets visibly annoyed and then calmly puts some perfume on the small vase of flowers on the table, and then sets the flowers on fire. That definitely gets the waiter’s attention, and the horrified waiter can’t believe what he’s seeing. The waiter tells Frances that she’s crazy, as he and other employees rush to put out the fire, while Frances and Malcolm just sit there and smirk.

It’s a very unrealistic “only in a movie moment” (and there will be more to come as the story goes downhill), because in the real world, causing arson in a restaurant can get someone arrested. Perhaps this arson scene was supposed to make Frances look like a “badass” who doesn’t put up with anyone disrespecting her son. But it just makes her look mean-spirited and mentally unstable, with Malcolm as her enabler.

Malcolm and Frances soon meet someone who comes into their lives as a possible friend. Frances shows Malcolm a house party invitation from another American in Paris named Madame Renard (played by Valerie Mahaffey), a widow who used to run in the same New York City social circles as Frances. Malcolm and Frances go to the party at Madame Renard’s home and find out that they are the only guests.

It turns out that Madame Renard only invited the two of them to this party. Madame Renard confesses to Frances and Malcolm that she’s been lonely since her husband died and was hoping that she could become friends with Frances. Madame Renard gives effusive compliments to Frances and says that she’s always admired Frances from afar.

Even though it’s obvious that Madame Renard is feeling very emotionally vulnerable, Frances callously tells Madame Renard in a disgusted tone of voice that she’s not interested in being her friend and isn’t looking for any friends. Madame Renard looks crushed and embarrassed, while Malcolm makes a sincere apology for the way his mother is behaving.

Despite being insulted in her own home, Madame Renard invites Frances and Malcolm to stay for dinner. Frances eventually makes an apology to Madame Renard for being so rude, and makes the excuse that she’s going through a difficult time too. Madame Renard accepts the apology and she ends up spending more time with Frances and Malcolm.

Some viewers will have a hard time connecting to Frances and Malcolm, which is why “French Exit” isn’t the charming oddball movie that it wants to be. Frances is emotionally cold, usually selfish, and really isn’t that great of a mother. She also doesn’t seem to have any talent for anything. And she’s definitely not very smart, considering she had a lot of privileged advantages and yet ended up in this awful predicament at this stage in her life.

At one point in the movie, Frances declares: “My plan was to die before the money ran out.” It tells you a lot about how short-sighted, boring and empty her life is if all she has to show for it is an emotionally stunted son and a fortune she’s squandered (money that was earned by someone else, since Frances has never worked), thereby leaving her son’s future uncertain too. Most socialites at least have some hobbies, but Frances doesn’t seem to have any interests other than trying to be the center of attention and getting what she wants.

Malcolm is a man-child who’s fairly articulate and has good manners, but he’s completely sheltered from a lot of reality and wants to live in the same psychological “bubble” that Frances tries to use to shield herself from life’s harshest problems. He also doesn’t seem willing or concerned about finding a job to help with their financial problems. Frances is close to retirement age and has no job skills. But there’s no excuse for Malcolm, who’s young and healthy, for him not to try and find work. Is he really that lazy and incapable of problem solving? Apparently so.

An example of how socially clueless Malcolm can be is in the scene in New York when Malcolm told Susan that he was moving to Paris. He brought flowers to their lunch date, even though he probably knew that Susan would break up with him. Susan sees the absurdity of this romantic gesture and chastises Malcolm for bringing flowers to this date. It’s almost as if he thinks a gift of flowers could erase the bad news that he was moving to Paris.

However, Malcolm has a sympathetic side when viewers find out how much his parents neglected him when he was a child. There’s a scene that shows how deep Malcolm’s emotional wounds run in feeling unloved by his father. It explains why Malcolm can’t quite tear himself away from Frances, because he’s trying to get the unconditional love and approval from her that he didn’t get from his father. As toxic as his mother’s love can be, Malcolm thinks it’s better than nothing.

The filmmakers clearly didn’t want “French Exit” to be a typical mother/son movie, but in trying to buck convention too much, the movie falls off the rails. In the last third of “French Exit,” the movie then turns into a silly indulgence of séances and people who don’t know each other conveniently showing up in the same place in a short period of time to continue the absurdity. There’s also a private investigator named Julius (played by Isaach De Bankolé) who comes into the picture, for reasons that are explained in the movie.

The cinematography, costume design and production design make the movie look very stylish. (“French Exit” was actually filmed in Montreal.) But the music of “French Exit” is a weird mix of sitcom schlock in some scenes and classical elegance in other scenes. It’s an example of the wildly contrasting tones in this movie, which seems like it got weirder and weirder to distract viewers from the fact that Frances and Malcolm have very aimless lives. Paris is one of the most exciting and fascinating cities in the world, but this miserable mother and son of “French Exit” have such hollow lives that their boredom comes at the expense of making Paris and this movie look like mindless gimmicks.

Sony Pictures Classics released “French Exit” in select U.S. virtual cinemas in New York City and Los Angeles on February 12, 2021. The movie expands to more cities across the U.S. on April 2, 2021.