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NYFF 2020 ‘French Exit’ Review: A Pretentious Yet Punchy High Society Satire

Sony Pictures Classics

Frances Price (Michelle Pfeiffer), a high-society New Yorker, certainly knows how to make an entrance. With a cigarette or martini in hand, she dons sumptuous getups and doles out lacerating jabs. But widowed and low on cash, she also knows a thing or two about how to make a speedy exit.

Directed by Azazel Jacobs and adapted by Patrick deWitt from his 2018 novel of the same name, French Exit is about trying to run away from life’s problems. Frances learns from her financial planner that all her accounts have run dry and she will be locked out of them imminently, so she packs up and heads to Paris with her adult son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) and their cat, Small Frank.

They set sail on a cruise ship where they encounter a medium named Madeleine (Danielle Macdonald) who claims their cat embodies the spirit of Frances’s late husband Frank — but this is not news to Frances, who has long known small Frank was her husband reincarnated. They hold a seance with Madeleine the “witch” and summon Frank. They are curious where he went off to, and he says he is living “nomadically” — but so are they, as eventually, they arrive in Paris, ready to shack up at the empty apartment of Joan (Susan Coyne).

Wry, charming, and filled with hyperliterature language, French Exit has echoes of Noah Baumbach, Whit Stillman, and J.D. Salinger in its depiction of alienated youth and the woes of the elite — especially because it opens with Frances busting Malcolm out of boarding school. Frances and his mother exist in a world strangely out of time as their cruise-ship voyage and isolation from technology set them adrift in a fantasy world.

The dialogue is deadpan but the mood is farcical as they conduct seances, visit the over-eager Madame Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey), or meander penniless around Paris. But underneath all the campiness and deliciously searing one-liners, these characters are deeply vulnerable, masking their sensitivities with snappiness and side-eye. “My plan was to die before the money ran out, but I kept, and keep, not dying,” confesses Frances. For this glamorous woman, her world seems to be continually ending. Jacobs strikes an extraordinarily delicate balance between madness and melancholy, never judging the characters or questioning the reality of their emotions.

Yet supporting characters — Malcolm especially — are somewhat undercooked. Malcolm confronts his father for forever feeling like a stranger to him, but Malcolm remains a bit of a stranger to the audience, his connection with the others on-screen only lukewarm. He and his girlfriend Susan (Imogen Poots) seem chronically unable to move forward with their relationship in a healthy way. Frances is also unable to move forward with her life and figure out how to escape the miserable isolation their “escape” to Paris has wrought. Pfeiffer and Hedges make for appealing scene partners, even if their characters’ relationship does not hit the mark fully when it comes to the emotional and clingy codependency the story suggests.

With a surreal sense of humor and flirtations with the supernatural, French Exit takes us to a heightened realm where the Prices are always out of step with reality. While they are out of time and out of touch, they find their own rhythm in French Exit and perform an offbeat dance of death and destitution with style.

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