French Exit

Directed by: Azazel Jacobs

Screenplay by: Patrick deWitt, based on French Exit by Patrick deWitt

Starring: Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges, Valerie Mahaffey, Imogen Poots, Susan Coyne, Tracy Letts

An interesting dichotomy occurs when the fabulously wealthy are suddenly slung into destitution. Clinging to their old ways to try and save a good name, or to save the last bit of sanity they might have.

Of course, no one is more adept at living the façade as is Frances Price, played with great humor, grace and aplomb by the stunning Michelle Pfeiffer.

Every bit the stuffed New York aristocrat, Frances is numb to her world. Yet, she cares a great deal for her son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), even if there is a great gulf between mother and son. Malcolm appears to have everything going for him, but he seems aimless, a hallmark of Hedges’ acting style. It works here, delivering comedic moments in a rather dark story.

Director Azazel Jacobs (“The Lovers”) and Patrick deWitt, who adapted his own novel into the screenplay, effuse dysfunction into what would appear to be a normal setting. The story itself is not overtly humorous. Much like his prior film, Jacobs layers the dark humor over the even darker feel – the pain of the characters is felt through the dry, deadpan humor slicing and cutting one another down. Pfeiffer relishes it and Hedges eggs Pfeiffer on.

When Frances is faced with a dried-up estate and a vast wealth gone, she has no choice but to seek the very thing she is incapable of giving – charity. Thank goodness for the kindness of friends, namely Joan (Susan Coyne) who has an unused apartment in Paris for Frances and Malcolm to escape to.

Malcolm, who has problems of his own, has to break the news to his girlfriend, Susan (Imogen Poots) and in an awkwardly funny scene toward the beginning of the film, we see just how distant Malcolm’s relationship abilities are. Yet, Jacobs’ lines the scene with a number of visual cues that suggests that Malcolm is capable of so much more.

This is “French Exit’s” strength – there is far more to the film than just what’s on the surface.

It would be cliché of me to say that Jacobs has pulled a page from Wes Anderson, but he has in fact surrounded himself with a great cast of characters, who each add a complexity and richness to the dark humor; none more so than Valerie Mahaffey’s Madame Renyard, an American expat living in Paris, who knew Frances when the estate was in much better shape than it is today. Mdme. Reynard is the glue that ultimately binds the film together, bringing a natural change about Frances as she discovers the reason why she has returned to Paris all these many years later.

Tracy Letts, who worked with Jacobs on “The Lovers,” also provides a very catty voice of reason to the story of denial, relationships, love and ultimately, finding oneself.

The story works as well as it does because of its characters. There are times where, despite having a rather large apartment in Paris, the film feels claustrophobic, story-wise. It is perhaps symbolic of Frances’ journey, and Pfeiffer does an amazing job, earning her Golden Globe nomination. Yet, even after she realizes her way forward, the sense of feeling trapped remains.

“French Exit” is Recommended.