French Exit is a dry comedy so deadpan you may have to take its pulse every few minutes.
French Exit (2020) Review By Mark McPherson
Published on April 2, 2021
Rating 3 /5
French Exit is a dry comedy so deadpan you may have to take its pulse every few minutes. Even with its odd angle involving witches and the afterlife, the central tale of a stuffy relationship between a mother and son never quite hits that darkly comedic and bittersweet pleasure. Such a meandering makes this film a hard one to follow when it always seems like every conversation is an uncomfortable one that begs for a retreat. That being said, the film still blossoms with a satire of the sophisticated that almost achieves a decadent allure with some palpable chemistry.
The film follows Frances Price (Michelle Pfeiffer), a New York socialite that is finding her prime and proper lifestyle coming to an end financially. Having endured the loss of her husband, funds begin to dwindle as she realizes she will have to sell her accumulation of expensive assets, including her mansion. It’s a lifestyle she is reluctant to part from, given how much she adores the lifestyle of being shrill, quiet, and glamorous with a cigarette constantly in her hand. She has embraced such a life of drowning in her rich vices that she had counted on dying before the money had been fully spent. Now she faces an uncertain future with her aimless twenty-something son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) who is secretly engaged.
Seeking to get away from it all, Frances and Malcolm take off for Paris. Yet the two of them can’t seem to escape their pasts and their problems of perception. Death follows them on the crews and spirits continue to pester their stay. Though Malcolm tries to wryly adjust to new places and people, Frances finds herself crumbling emotionally, revealing just how little she can cope with her twilight years. Having gone broke has shattered her veneer of trying to seem more as though she’s a woman who has it all together, able to converse with ease to either bums or police officers with witty repartee. The truth is that she is a woman who finds herself dependent on others for various support. And the most scary thing for her is that she knows it.
The biggest draw of such a picture is undoubtedly the performance of Pfeiffer in a role that could be easy for her to sleepwalk through yet never does. She stretches words, stumbles over herself, and seems to be one drink away from having a nervous breakdown. There’s a particularly awkward yet telling moment where Malcolm comes home to find Frances in a dark kitchen sharpening a knife. Bitter and drunk, she involves him that they’re insolvent. While doing so, she accidentally slings a knife scattering by Malcolm’s feet. She’s only slightly shocked and he’s only mildly uncomfortable. It’s as though this is a dance they’ve had before.
Frances and Malcolm encounter a handful of colorful and quirky characters along the way. At one point they visit an old friend of Frances for drinks, Malcolm happens upon a dildo in the freezer. This leads to a very uncomfortably hilarious discussion with his mother as he attempts to explain to her the mechanics of using a dildo. The placement in the freezer, however, remains a mystery to them.
By the third act, the film almost ventures into last-minute screwball territory when it is revealed Frances’s cat is possessed by a talking spirit. Yes, this film has a talking cat as well as a spiritual ritual to summon the voice. Fitting with the comedy, the spirit is also quite cynical and bitter towards the flawed Frances. He ends on a session by casually cussing her out while the candles go out.
French Exit is a fairly light and dry bit of comedy that finds just enough smirks amid rich white people taking a fall. The performances are strong, the writing intriguing enough, and the bond between mother and son never feels bloated, rising at just the right moments to feel real. There’s also remarkable restraint for a film with a talking cat that can still maintain a genuinely engaging and emotional dramedy.
Mark has been a professional film critic for over five years and a film lover all his life.