Azazel Jacobs’ French Exit tells you everything you need to know about its heroine in one early, seemingly throwaway scene. Strolling through Central Park with her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), Frances (Michelle Pfeiffer) spots a homeless man. She pulls on her cigarette and eyes him not with compassion or contempt but with a curiosity that she extends to almost no other human in the entire film.
After he introduces himself as “Dan” she promotes him in response to “Daniel”. This is a woman who would rather not live in a world with such dull and unmemorable names as Dan. Given this, and added to her having just been told the river of wealth that has sustained her languorously luxurious life is almost dried up, her quietly self-destructive behavior takes on a darker though still comedic hue.
Based on Patrick DeWitt’s novel, French Exit is rife with some of the same chipper bad behavior and troubled familial relationships as DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers (2018). But instead of sibling hitmen doing dirt around the Old West, this story follows a mother and son with no sense of how to live in the world or how to relate to the people who keep tagging along. They can afford to do this because Frances’ years-dead husband Franklin (Tracy Letts)—whom Frances refers to, somehow not unkindly, as “an emotional moron”—left them a pile of money and very few pleasant memories as reasons to mourn his passing.
When the film begins, Frances has just about used up the money and is told she needs to sell everything. That leaves her with the sole recourse of leaving New York to live in her friend’s Paris apartment with Malcolm and a fast-dwindling stack of euros.
Living in high befuddlement in Frances’ shadow, Malcolm (played by the usually higher-strung Hedges in a more bumbling Steve Zahn register) appears to be of post-college age but with as little interest in starting a career or engaging with the grubbier aspects of life as a cat would have in starting a hedge fund.
They have a close but not entirely healthy bond. Theoretically, he’s engaged to be married but thinks nothing of breaking up with his fiancée Susan (Imogen Poots) the second Frances moves them to Paris. Malcolm has little of Frances’ yen for dramatics—annoyed by a rude waiter, she calmly sets a restaurant centerpiece on fire—but shares her unconscious confidence that no matter how much he holds himself apart from the world, it will all eventually come to him anyway.
The earlier, New York-set scenes entertain primarily because of Pfeiffer’s serenely assured turn as the high-society diva who sneers at the word “sensible” as though it were a curse. Once the story relocates to Paris, though, the blithely Arrested Development-esque familial dysfunction takes a welcome turn to the absurd.
A fortuneteller briefly absconds with Malcolm’s easily-won heart. Seances are involved. A cruise-liner doctor informs Malcolm that “two bodies a day” are “standard for Atlantic crossings.” Small Frank, the black cat who came with Malcolm and Frances from New York, may in fact contain the consciousness of the human Franklin. Jacobs handles the implausibilities and widening circle of characters with a low-key comedic panache that suggests a less visually fussy Wes Anderson.
The story isn’t particularly engaging, focused primarily on the increasingly inexplicable attempts of Frances to blow through their remaining money and her small circle of acquaintances’ concern over that behavior. But as the narrative advances, it adds a series of secondary characters until the mother and son’s charming Parisian flat is crammed with various friends, the fortuneteller, Susan and her new fiancé, and Julius, a laid-back private detective (Isaach De Bankole) who seems interested in hanging around just to see what happens with Frances and her bridge-burning campaign.
Anyone taking Julius’ approach to French Exit is likely to be satisfied with the result, even with the admittedly unimaginative finalé. Anyone else may as well be named Dan.