Azazel Jacobs’ “French Exit” begins with Frances Prince, a wealthy Manhattan social figure (Michelle Pfeiffer), discovering she’s gone completely broke.
The seemingly unending amount of money has finally dried up. Prince takes her son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) and swiftly moves to Paris.
At first, “French Exit” seems entirely resistible, as Pfeiffer’s entitled character is off-putting, her wealthy socialite who, the papers always tell us, is so rich she is “used to a certain kind of lifestyle.”
Unless the performers dig deep, it can be hard to see the human being beneath a hermetically sealed armor of financial protection and disconnect. Pfeiffer gives her character a rich inner life and gradual fascination, and the entire film also follows suit.
I’m glad I stuck with this one, as “French Exit” becomes impossible to predict with each passing scene. Unpredictable doesn’t even begin to describe it and quirky is too easy. This movie is strange in ways I found delightful, because you can’t get ahead of it.
It seems like the film is positioning itself for an ocean liner setting, but even that’s just a part of the set-up. Once the film settles in Paris, the story gets weird, takes some major chances and never hesitates to add another wild touch to an already screwy concoction.
Some may check once we learn why Prince brought her cat along with her to Paris. It’s the first of many details that are impossible to predict.
It’s no wonder this is based on a novel, as it’s the kind of story that is driven by the imagination of a writer and devoid of any movie formula. Even more impressive is that a film this hard to describe could be made today in the first place.
It’s too somber to be a comedy, too funny to be a drama and too eccentric to neatly fit in any genre. It’s been made with a sure hand but without a demonstrative style, which keeps it from being lazily tossed in the bin of “art house” attraction.
The tone is somehow both snarky and gentle, making the whole thing fun and easy to absorb, even as it dazzles by taking some very big chances.
Jacobs previously directed “Terri,” a 2011 John C. Reilly-starring indie comedy that, despite its good intentions, I didn’t care for. “French Exit,” on the other hand, makes a lasting impression, due to its layered turns and a novel screenplay by Patrick DeWitt (based on his novel) in which anything is possible, and the only predictable aspect is how another unexpected plot twist will eventually turn up.
I loved how Tracy Letts, playing Pfeiffer’s husband, exits early but manages to remain a part of the story. Likewise, how Danielle Macdonald’s con artist and Imogen Poots’ estranged girlfriend maintain their presence, long after you’d expect the screenplay had any further use for them.
After a while, the film becomes exactly what it is: an apartment full of interesting oddballs. How much you enjoy the film depends on whether you feel affection towards the unique characters who inhabit this story. The closing scenes are full of mystery, which is another great choice.
Pfeiffer does the impossible -- she makes you care about her character and invests the kind of depth into her role that merits comparison to Cate Blanchett’s Oscar-winning turn in “Blue Jasmine.” I’ve never been sympathetic to millionaire housewives of white-collar monsters. Frances Price might be impossible to relate to, but I grew to care about her and all of the family members she adds to her circle.
“French Exit” is the rare comedy that boldly adds magical realism to a setting of urbane sophisticates, which is just one reason that you’ll probably never forget it.