Michelle Pfeiffer’s role as Frances Price, a sardonic widow and mother living out her dwindling inheritance in French Exit, is the finest characterization in any movie from 2020. That she is not in contention for this weekend’s Academy Awards is reason enough to ignore the charade. It has become a kangaroo court in denial of meritocracy, an offense that deserves disdain the same way that Frances Price battles modern hypocrisy. She pulls her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) out of his boarding school, and they book an ocean liner to France, knowing she will meet her destiny.
In this comedy about wealth and death, Frances takes on privilege and finality with a boldness that Pfeiffer, whose film career began as the cheerleading babe in Grease 2, had to refine her talent to achieve. Defying all obstacles, Frances is world-weary without becoming defeatist. She questions social proprieties and keeps moving forward — an existential cheerleader wearing couture as a middle-aged socialite’s armor. Frances insults anyone in her way, saving admiration for others who transgress (her perception of a Parisian street bum) and for Malcolm, the son she dotes on (“I’ve never been so hurt as when I saw your face for the first time, because you were me”).
French Exit is a variation on Patrick Dennis’s Auntie Mame, the très gay comic novel from the 1950s in which a madcap woman urges her nephew to “live, live, live!” Pfeiffer’s madcap turn is not a drag queen, but her graying red hair, pale skin, and low voice impersonate French art-film actress Isabelle Huppert, whom an American arriviste might envy as a model of haughtiness. Pfeiffer uses that exasperatingly humorless attitude so that Frances (novelist Patrick deWitt’s Millennial twist on Auntie Mame) approaches mortality with the eccentricity of a screwball comedy heroine. The scene where Frances starts a fire in a Paris restaurant just to get a snotty waiter’s attention is as audacious as any stunt Carole Lombard or Katharine Hepburn ever pulled, yet ominous. Similarly, Frances is attached to a black cat who she believes is her late husband’s reincarnation.
That outré trait recalls Pfeiffer’s previous career high as the mousey girl who becomes vengeful Catwoman in Batman Returns (1992), but French Exit isn’t phantasmagoric like Tim Burton’s comic-book satire. While director Azazel Jacobs and cinematographer Tobias Datum give the film nicely subdued lighting, its tenuous realism is made credible through Frances/Pfeiffer’s affectations. She masters multiple emotions in simple facial expressions. It’s an extraordinary balance of motherliness, cynicism, and eroticism. Frances’s thoughts on masculinity (“What a lottery life is!”) make her an original.
DeWitt’s screenplay has its own affectations, attempting an adult Wes Anderson fable or a dry Whit Stillman drama. Frances and Malcolm attract other eccentrics — soulmates offering peculiar friendship. Frances asserts, “I believe that friendship is a greater force for good than any religion.” But the film’s centerpiece belongs to an expat spinster (Valerie Mahaffey) who recites Emily Dickinson: “We journey to the day / And tell each other how we sang / To keep the dark away.” Its gentle weirdness is a moment of near-perfection — but Jacobs cuts away too soon.
In Jacobs’s previous film, The Lovers, the storytelling seemed to be going nowhere, but this film finds drollery in the disjunction between life and relationships. Jacobs circles around his own Anderson/Stillman sense of privilege, and that revelation may explain why French Exit was largely dismissed by critics and eventually ignored at the Oscars.
Despite unconvincing rhetoric about “equity,” the media overlook the reality of our culture’s class crisis. And the crisis of moral insecurity is the phantom haunting Frances. Her snideness toward cops and her support of street rabble seem contradictory, yet they evoke today’s urban bourgeoisie that is either crumbling or newly empowered, yet currently in control of the way the world looks at itself. Jacobs and DeWitt seem sympathetic, but they achieve art when — through Pfeiffer — their film is analytical. Frances Price is exactly the type that the media protect as their own — and they do so by failing to acknowledge Pfeiffer’s humanizing insight.
For the Oscar-minded, here’s my better-than choices: Best Film: Straight Up. Best Director: James Sweeney (Straight Up) followed by Christophe Honoré (On a Magical Night). Best Actor: James Sweeney (Straight Up) followed by George MacKay (True History of the Kelly Gang). Best Actress: Michelle Pfeiffer (French Exit) followed by Katie Findlay (Straight Up). Best Supporting Actor: David Thewlis (I’m Thinking of Ending Things). Best Supporting Actress: Letitia Wright (Mangrove).