Going into French Exit, the newest film from director Azazel Jacobs, I expected more of a straight drama with very little comedy. To my surprise, the film quickly pulled me in with its quirky dark humor, excellent and fully-formed characters, and masterful acting from both Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges. The supporting characters peppered throughout are often just as smartly written as the leads, with my favorite being Valerie Mahaffey’s captivating (and frequently hilarious) Madame Reynard. Though it deals with heavy themes like death, depression, suicide, and homelessness, French Exit itself never feels weighed down by any of the inherent sadness you’d associate with these topics. Instead, its buoy from one scene to the next is the beautiful relationship between mother and son.
As the funds from her husband’s fortune begin drying up, widowed Frances (Michelle Pfeiffer) decides to relocate from New York to Paris with her concerned son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) and their black cat Small Frank who she believes to contain the soul of her deceased husband. Once in Paris, the widow’s cynicism slowly evolves into something decidedly different as both Frances and Malcolm are forced to confront their past and embrace potential futures.
The acting here is extraordinary, especially from Michelle Pfeiffer. She was nominated for a Golden Globe for best actress and it’s not hard to see why. The deteriorating mental and emotional state where we first meet Frances at first feels strictly devoted to her loss of money and social standing, but when we get to Paris it gets so much deeper than that. Her generosity knows no bounds as she overtips everyone she sees and even gives money away to a homeless man she sees in the park. Pfeiffer plays every scene with an almost fiery energy and never betrays her character’s inherently sassy attitude throughout. An early scene where Frances is running two blades against each other only for “the sound it makes” and not because she’s cooking is a perfect example of Pfeiffer’s stunning performance. Frances isn’t the type to wear her true feelings on her sleeve; that Pfeiffer is able to make this character pop so much is a tribute to her grasp and deep understanding of the character herself.
Opposite Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges as Malcolm is the more reserved foil to his mother’s rougher edges. This marks yet another strong performance from Hedges, who has emerged as one of my favorite actors between terrific turns in Boy Erased, Ben is Back, and Honey Boy. Hedges has a quietness he brings to the character, and many of the biggest laughs come courtesy of Malcolm. He’s always trying to cheer up or impress his mother whenever he can, never more evident than a scene where he discovers a huge frozen dildo in a friend’s freezer and makes sure she sees it too. It’s in that kind of strange dark comedy where this film excels the most.
By the second act, French Exit evolves into a bit of an ensemble piece. Our duo encounter several newbies along the way, and among this crop of faces are tender and sweet Madame Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey), an admiring fan of Frances who just needs a friend, and alluring but honest Madeleine the Medium (Danielle Macdonald), a psychic who becomes central to the storyline. These two characters in particular I really enjoyed whereas I found some others – especially Susan (Imogen Poots) – extremely unlikeable.
French Exit isn’t a conventional drama by any means. A strange seance, an arm-wrestling game where the winner gets nothing, a literal one-two punch with two characters, emotional revelations with cats, and a meaningful if slightly ambiguous ending abound. I think this is the kind of movie that you’ll either love or hate and nothing in between, but if even if you can’t embrace the almost Wes Anderson level of quirky humor, you’ll find at least two unforgettable performances. With Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges at their best, French Exit is an easy recommend. Playing now in limited release theaters, French Exit expands to wide release on April 2nd.