Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Oct 10, 2020 8:39 pm 
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Escape from Manhattan

Azazel Jacobs' French Exit, based on a novel by Patrick deWitt (The Sisters Brothers) and adapted by him, is a superb vehicle for Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges, who play mother and son Frances and Malcolm Price. They once were very wealthy, but for reasons not fully explained, Franklin Price, the husband and father of these two, having died some time ago, and Frances being a wild spender, the money has altogether run out. So Frances sells her jewelry and other valuables and has the result put into cash, takes the cash, and goes to Paris with Malcolm. They stay at a vacant apartment offered by Frances' old friend Joan (Susan Coyce).

This is a story, a sophisticated, jaded vision of uber-New York for the closing of the New York Film Festival, that's not for everyone, and that might well include me, or would if it weren't for the presence of Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges. I wanted to see where they are now in the very different stages of their two careers (40 years apart) and how they would perform in this vehicle chosen for their talents and embraced by them as a project. Not long ago, I found time for Maggie Smith and Kevin Kline in Israel Horovitz's My Old Lady, in which an alcoholic, Shakespeare-quoting American loser (Kline) comes to Paris to claim a valuable apartment he's inherited from his father, but finds he can't claim it. This does not win us over to the character, but delves into practical matters of French real estate (the viager system). And beside Maggie Smith we also meet Kristin Scott Thomas.

French Exit isn't so practical as French real estate, but it has concerns and interests of its own, of course. Frances (Pfeiffer) has so much attitude she's interesting to watch. She and Malcolm go for breakfast at a café, and when the waiter is indifferent about bringing the check, she scatters lighter fluid on the table flowers and sets fire to them. She not only manages to bring a couple hundred thousand euros in cash with her off the luxury liner they come over on, in separate first class staterooms (there's a good way of burning cash, if that's your game), but also a black cat. The cat's name is Little Frank.

It starts getting complicated on the ship. Malcolm has befriended and had sex with Madeleine (Danielle Macdonald of Patti Cake$), who's a medium. She has a way of foreseeing old ladies' imminent death, and goes to the brig for causing the death of one by telling her. In Paris Little Frank disappears, and Frances engages a private detective, Julius (Isaach De Bankolé), to find Madeleine in Paris. Madeleine is able to get through to Little Frank in spirit sessions and Frances has extended conversations with him. Unfinished business, you see. (Little Frank/Franklin's ghost is voiced by actor/playwright Tracy Letts.) A card to Joan that Frances wrote and intentionally abandoned is sent off by a waiter - a nice one, this time - and its message so worries Joan that she comes to her own apartment to see if Frances is alright.

A miserable phone call from a pay box by Malcolm to his fiancée, Susan (Imogen Poots) leads to her coming too, and an earlier boyfriend of hers she's now hanging out with, a stock broker called Tom (Daniel di Tomasso), comes with her. At one point all these people, Frances and Malcolm; Joan; Susan and Tom; and Madeleine, minus the cat, are all staying at the Paris apartment, which, unlike the one in My Old Lady, isn't very large. There is someone else, a lonely American lady llving in Paris who has latched onto Frances and Malcolm, called Mme. Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey).

Most of these people are original, if too obviously intended to be, except perhaps Tom, the broker, whom nobody likes, and who departs of his own accord, leaving Susan to Malcolm. Unlike My Old Lady, there is not a lot of bloviating about the meaning of life, except a bit from Joan at one point; and Mlle. Reynard's overt loneliness can be a bore. Frances seems to be still discovering about her own life, largely through talking to her dead husband. And we are discovering her; because when all is working right, it's not anything that happens but just what Frances says that holds our interest throughout. This may make you wonder why all these minor characters are really necessary.

This is a very tight-lipped role for Lucas Hedges, but one that he inhabits very well. There are scenes of the time when Frances took away a younger Malcolm (Eddie Holland) from boarding school set as bookends at the beginning and ending of French Exit whose point isn't altogether clear: they seem to be valuable for allowing Eddie Holland to say a few lines appearing very much indeed like a young Lucas Hedges, and for showing off a beautiful pale gray Rolls Royce.

What does all this mean? Well, it may mean, some say, that Michelle Pfeiffer will get an Oscar nomination. And it adds luster to Lucas Hedges by association. They are well matched, as a pair of emotionally stunted individuals who nonetheless manage to bond and say they love one another.

Some of the scenes have an edge: like the one where Frances tries to give away a stack of 100€ notes to a homeless man whom she seems attracted to. He will take only a few, and directs her to another man whom she doesn't know at all, who grabs them all, and runs without a word, showing that if you give too much, people are less grateful.

French Exit, 110 mins., debuted at the virtual/drive-in New York Film Festival, screened as the Closing night film Oct. 10, 2020. Sony Pictures Classics and Stage 6 Films US release. Scheduled for release Feb. 12, 2021.

Variety review says "Michelle Pfeiffer Makes a Clean Break, Delivering the Role for Which She’ll Be Remembered."

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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