Movie Review (NYFF): ‘French Exit’ is a Melancholic Love Story between Mother and Son
Director: Azazel Jacobs
Writer: Patrick Dewitt
Stars: Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges, Valerie Mahaffey, Imogen Poots, Susan Coyne, Danielle Macdonald, Isaach De Bankolé, Daniel Di Tomasso, Tracy Letts.
Synopsis: 60-year-old penniless Manhattan socialite, Frances Price, cashes in the last of the possessions and goes to Paris to live out her twilight days, accompanied by her directionless son Malcolm and a cat named Small Frank, who may or may not embody the spirit of Frances’s dead husband.
French Exit, the latest movie by director Azazel Jacobs, speaks kindly to my soul. This film, with its elegance, quirkiness, and sardonic humor, happens to be a beautiful love story between mother and son that find each other and never let go. However, this is not all that the movie offers. At its core, it is about lonely people and the way they unexpectedly connect.
The story, adapted by Patrick Dewitt from his own novel, follows Frances (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Malcolm (Lucas Hedges). She is a socialite that has been a widow for twelve years and now finds herself in the last stage of her life without any money left in her bank account. He is her son that goes through life with a depressing and wandering attitude, always there in a taciturn and shadowy way. He is useless in life but loyal to the woman who rescued him from a boarding school when the patriarch (Tracy Letts) of the family suddenly died and who, according to the family of two, now possesses the body of the family cat, Small Frank.
The life of Francis is defined and shaped by money. From the first moment we meet her we understand that she lives in a special bubble where anything is possible and where she can do whatever she wants. However, these glory days are over and belong in the past, coming to life in the present through wild and eccentric stories told by those around her in awe of her presence.
Now she is tired, hopeless, and, for the first time, stripped from the things that defined her place in society. However, she still has her personality, one of the most compelling and captivating profiles in any movie of the year, brought to life by an exquisite Michelle Pfeiffer, dressed in awe-inducing costumes by Jane Petrie. Her presence is instantly felt, her sassiness is enjoyable, and her sense of self is inspiring.
This woman, certainly privileged, is fearless and charming and shares a beautiful and co-dependent bond with her grownup son, Malcolm. Together they form a duo that is stoic, sharp, and highly entertaining. Therefore, it is a pleasure to follow their long trip from New York to a friend’s apartment in Paris. Precisely this change in scenario is the one that brings an extravagant and adorable storytelling and production design that recalls the work of Wes Anderson. A bleaker and darker Anderson with a sharper and affecting script.
They are rapidly surrounded by lonely and love-hungry people, including a widow that has been a lifelong fan of Frances, Mme Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey); a clairvoyant that travels in the same ship as the family, Madeleine (Danielle Macdonald); a private detective who develops a sweet bond with clingy Mme Reynard, Julius (Isaach de Bankolé); Malcolm’s ex-fiancé, Susan (Imogen Poots), who is followed by her new boyfriend, Tom (Daniel di Tomasso); and the owner of the apartment, Joan (Susan Coyne), best friend of Frances who rushes to Paris once she hears our protagonist is thinking about ending her life. Brought together by unusual circumstances, they seem to share a bond that no one wants to break apart, creating a new thread of co-dependency between all of them.
Although the movie is extremely enjoyable, its tone is melancholic, and its main characters are going through their own personal struggles, with great emphasis on Frances and her lack of interest in life. At this point, the exploration of the relationship between Frances, her dead husband, and Malcolm provides a new layer of significance in the relationship between mother and son.
There is a shared attitude between these two of blank existence and complete indifference towards everything that happens around them. They are just there, together, and oblivious of the rest of the world. Nonetheless, this couple is the heart and soul of the movie. They love each other, they are there for each other and they are equals. It may not be the healthiest relationship, but it is one that is wholesome and reciprocal.
Pfeiffer and Hedges shine together, effectively bringing to life the sense of complicity and belonging that exists in a dysfunctional but loving family. There is a specific scene – maybe the most emotional of the movie – where Frances and Malcolm talk about their relationship and how much they mean to each other. There is so much tenderness and love in this exchange that it is impossible to remain immune to this eccentric pair.
With beautiful reflections about love and life, aided by romantic views of Paris in the winter, French Exit offers a sensitive and empathetic lens on someone that is suddenly at odds with her life. The process of acceptance and maturity that Frances goes through during her exile in Paris is humbling and enriching for her and her son. Together, Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges, offer a beautiful story about two people that find each other after years apart creating an enviable and unbreakable bond.