Azazel Jacobs’s French Exit

On Film / The Daily — Oct 13, 2020
Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges in Azazel Jacobs’s French Exit (2020)

Even though French Exit, the new comedy from Azazel Jacobs, has been met with mixed reviews, just about everyone agrees that Michelle Pfeiffer is spectacularly entertaining as Frances Price, a sixty-five-year-old New York widow frittering away the fortune her husband left behind twenty years ago. Frances is “a haughty, aging socialite who speaks with a deliciously barbed tongue, wearing her snobbishness and obvious loneliness and misery as badges of honor,” writes Chuck Bowen at Slant. “She’s a kook in the mold of a Preston Sturges character, with a dash of Charles Dickens and John Kennedy Toole, and Pfeiffer delivers her bon mots with a fine-edged precision that’s likable for its commitment to unlikability.”

With Frances, screenwriter Patrick deWitt, adapting his own novel, has dreamed up the sort of woman who discovers the lifeless body of her husband, Franklin, in their ritzy Manhattan apartment and decides to go ahead and take that planned vacation in Vail. She’ll call for an ambulance when she gets back. Now, two decades on, she’s spent her inheritance, but fortunately, a childhood friend, Joan (Susan Coyne), has a spare empty apartment in Paris. So Frances sells all her art and furniture, has her son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), bid farewell to his fiancée, Susan (Imogen Poots), and off they go—with their cat, Small Frank.

On the transatlantic cruise, Malcolm falls in with a psychic, Madeleine (Danielle Macdonald), who is convinced that the spirit of Franklin Price lives on in Small Frank, and she’s not wrong. The cat will be voiced by Tracy Letts, and he’s “pretty nasty,” finds Jon Frosch in the Hollywood Reporter, “more Behemoth from Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita than Paw-Paw from Miranda July’s The Future, as talking felines go.” Once Frances and Malcolm are set up in Paris, “seven or eight kooky characters are all unexpectedly living under one roof like a Kaufman and Hart play from the 1930s,” writes Doug Dibbern in the Notebook. French Exit is “a sleepy, gray Sunday afternoon of a movie that feels like a hyper-literate Aki Kaurismäki comedy one minute, and the silliest thing that Whit Stillman never made the next,” writes IndieWire’s David Ehrlich.

There’s another filmmaker, though, who comes to the mind of more than a few reviewers. “Take a typical Wes Anderson ensemble epic about a dysfunctional family,” writes Stephen Whitty for Screen, “subtract the obsessive art direction, wry Bill Murray performance, and most of the wit, and you get something like this.” The Guardian’s Benjamin Lee is even less fond of French Exit, calling it “an uneasy atonal misfire, an irritating collection of increasingly false moments, a thudding disappointment for those who managed to catch director Azazel Jacobs’s last film, the nuanced and knotty romantic drama The Lovers, a portrait of a marriage brought to life with specificity and acute observation. There’s none of that here, a defiantly unbelievable and drably directed heap of quirk that’s as overstuffed as it is underpowered, a head-scratching failure for all involved.”

The A.V. Club’s A. A. Dowd is less harsh, suggesting that deWitt, who cowrote Jacobs’s “so human it hurt” comedy Terri (2011), has this time around “created the impression of a story whose farcical qualities, melancholy beats, and offhand absurdism—one review of the book called it a ‘tragedy of errors’—probably blended more organically and pleasurably on the page.” For Doug Dibbern, “as much as I enjoyed the two hours I got to spend with Jacobs and deWitt’s offbeat vision, I sometimes wondered if they were entirely aware of what they were doing—or why.” But Pfeiffer “breathes life into the film,” writes Michael Frank at the Film Stage. “Each line reading is somehow poetic, pretentious, wistful, or heartbreaking, mostly some combination of the four.” Like most reviewers, Variety’s Peter Debruge agrees: “Whether drunkenly slinging kitchen knives or soberly putting men in their place, Pfeiffer ensures that audiences won’t soon forget Frances.”

Having closed out this year’s New York Film Festival over the weekend, French Exit is currently scheduled to open in theaters in February.

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