The wealthy fallen on hard times. A familiar literary trope, and one that comes with a certain built-in satisfaction as we watch the privileged trying to get used to no longer splashing the cash. Yet we’re often supposed to sympathise with them and, much to our surprise, we frequently do. That’s down to the set-up’s comic potential. Remember how last year’s departure of Schitt’s Creek’s adorable Rose family broke all our hearts? There’s a lingering sense that French Exit director Azazel Jacobs might have been aiming for something similar, but ew …..
Frances (the glorious Michelle Pfeiffer) is a New York socialite approaching bankruptcy. With help from son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), she’s managed to spend just about every penny she inherited on the sudden death of her husband, so all that remains is a discreet auction of her assets for cold, hard cash. Her best friend’s offer of staying in her Parisian apartment gives her an escape route from society gossip (hint: it’s not the last time the title will be taken so literally), so she sets sail for France on a cruise liner, accompanied by Malcolm, a stunning black cat, wads of Euros and a desire to be let alone, Garbo-style.
But, for somebody with such a distant manner and an ice cold tongue, she attracts people like a magnet so, once in situ in Paris, she steadily acquires a clutch of houseguests. The collection of would-be eccentrics – Madeleine the medium (Danielle Macdonald), the twittering but kind hearted Mme Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey) among them – should lift what has hitherto been a lacklustre journey into more comic territory. Alas, they don’t. The hangers-on are all so underwritten that there’s little to involve us and, in truth, that’s the film’s biggest problem. At no point do we feel any connection to the people on the screen and, worse still, we all-too-frequently don’t care very much what happens to them.
That should apply particularly when it comes to Frances: haughty, brittle and with a Gorgon-like stare, she doesn’t exactly encourage involvement. Yet Pfeiffer’s performance demands that we show an interest at the very least, and a respectful one at that. She reeks of the indifference and entitlement that can go with a life of privilege and she has a cool, effortless elegance that makes her look completely at home in Paris. It’s very much her film – even the cat is no competition – although Lucas Hedges delivers a nicely judged performance as an awkward, indecisive young man with more than a hint of mummy issues.
French Exit feels somehow incomplete, a film that maybe knew what it wanted to be when it started out but didn’t know how to get there. It’s neither comedy nor drama – there’s not enough of either to earn the description – and, despite an attractive cast, it struggles to make best use of them. Pfeiffer is, of course, the exception. But overall it’s a recipe for downbeat disappointment.
Comedy | Cert: 15 | Sony Pictures | Cinemas | 2 July 2021 | Dir. Azazel Jacobs | Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges, Danielle Macdonald, Imogen Poots, Valerie Mahaffey and the voice of Tracy Letts.