After Frances Price’s (Michelle Pfeiffer) husband dies, her accountant has some bad news. Apart from her house and exquisite collection of art and jewelry, the money’s gone. He recommends that she liquidate her Manhattanite’s assets and, as Jane Austen put it in Persuasion, retrench. We never hear exactly how much Frances nets from the sale but, afterwards, she fills up her designer carryon bag with stacks of cash. It looks like a half million dollar haul, maybe twice as much, maybe a lot less. But there’s a lack of specificity with facts like that in Azazel Jacobs’ French Exit.
The film is also missing the particulars of the Price family’s psychodrama. The original, fucked up family dynamics take place off screen or in cold, vanishing flashbacks. Without a clear picture of this world’s internal rulebook and background stories, the characters remain blurry and stranded in a muddled, plodding plot.
Frances’s second move is to show up, unannounced, to collect her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) at his boarding school. She appears out of the blue less like a fairy godmother and more like an avenging angel. In either case, their onscreen relationship stays in the realm of fantasy and never develops into something real. As they decamp for Paris, their rapport is closer to that of Auntie Mame and her orphaned nephew — only not as much fun. Frances isn’t a heroin addict or an alcoholic, per se, but Pfeiffer gives her vocal cadences a sleepiness, as if the character is a refugee from an opium den. When they do, at last, speak frankly with each other, the movie ends five minutes later. The underwritten Frances registers as a complete human being in this scene and in only one other, in which she apologizes to someone for being rude.
In the underrated Where’d You Go, Bernadette (2019), Cate Blanchett also plays a mother at a crossroads. Directed by Richard Linklater (Boyhood), he carefully constructs Bernadette’s relationship with her daughter and her husband. When Bernadette breaks down and breaks away from the family she loves, the audience is prepared for it. We know what kind of life she’s been living and why she’s aggrieved enough to make a mad dash away from her home. Frances is a shadowy figure, the meagre outline of a person sans flesh and bones. Without an income, she has no bulwark to protect her vulnerability and fragility from the world — and no inner resources to build one herself.
Patrick DeWitt adapted his own novel to write the French Exit screenplay. Overly familiar with the story, DeWitt either expects that the audience will have already read the novel — to fill in the blanks — or will instinctively intuit what he knows about the family Price. Since I haven’t read the book or read the author’s mind, I kept puzzling over each new subplot drifting whimsically away from the central mother-son relationship. At times Jacobs and DeWitt strive for, and do not achieve, the archness and emotional lucidity Wes Anderson invested in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) with such verve and ease.
As if in homage to Anderson, an extended, kooky group of misfits start to gather around Frances and Malcolm as they settle into their new life in Paris. Just as his mother affects a frozen exterior — she behaves like an empress made of ice — Malcolm leads with ambivalence. He hedges every bet and is utterly, if bafflingly, deferential to Frances. Before the move to France, Malcolm is engaged to his girlfriend Susan (Imogen Poots) but he fears his mother’s reaction to the news. Instead of breaking up with her, he simply disappears. This satellite story returns later in the film, alongside the arrival of an acquaintance from New York, a detective, a medium and the spirit of Franklin Price — Malcolm’s late father — who, naturally, inhabits the body of Frances’ black cat.
The term magical realism doesn’t quite account for the silliness surrounding the inclusion of a talking cat. It’s yet another indication of how far out of touch the Prices are with any practical sense of reality. Upon arrival in a foreign country, Frances doesn’t deposit her stash of money in a bank. She keeps it in the carryon bag at the back of her closet. When they need groceries or a cab ride, she grabs an obscene amount of cash and slowly but surely fritters their savings away. She’s Moira Rose from Schitt’s Creek without a Rose family to restrain her self-destructive excesses.
Ultimately, French Exit is another sour variation on a theme that plays out in Francoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse. Cécile, in Sagan’s version, wants the romantic idyll she maintains with her widower father to last forever. As in DeWitt’s parable, she has to learn the hard way that leaving a parent behind is crucial to growing up. Malcolm is a passive creature in comparison to Cécile. It’s unclear at the conclusion if he’ll wake up, move on, or slump back down into indifference and oblivion on the posh couch that doesn’t belong to him.
French Exit opens April 2 at Landmark’s Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco and the Shattuck Cinemas, Berkeley.