▶︎ French Exit will be released in the UK by Sony Pictures in 2021.

A bracing satire of haut bourgeois decadence, Azazel Jacobs’ French Exit, adapted by Patrick deWitt from his comic novel, depicts the waning days of the jaundiced socialite Frances Price (Michelle Pfeiffer), a spiritual cousin of Blue Jasmine’s fallen Manhattan brahmin. Accompanied on an ocean liner by her grown son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) and their cat Small Frank, the near-bankrupt Frances leaves New York for France to avoid the derision of those she once terrified with her soignée imperiousness and devastatingly insouciant put-downs.

Jacobs’ films habitually elicit the potential of alienated characters, easing them toward (re)adjustment: the regressive thirtysomething father in Momma’s Man, the overweight youth in the deWitt-scripted Terri, the unhappily married middle-age couple shocked by rekindling their passion in The Lovers. Late in French Exit, Frances washes the dishes in her and Malcolm’s borrowed Paris apartment. Having never done a day’s work, she is virtually redeemed by doing such an everyday chore.

She is also humanised by her anxious search for Small Frank. Named after her late husband Franklin and harbouring his spirit, he has fled fearing Frances will strangle him. She contacts him through the clairvoyant Madeleine (Danielle Macdonald), with whom Malcolm slept on their dreary Atlantic crossing. Small Frank (voiced by Tracy Letts) complains he’s infested with fleas and worms. Jacobs delivers the scene with deadpan aplomb, rendering its unreality ambiguous.

Lucas Hedges as Malcolm and Danielle Macdonald as Madeleine in French Exit

Their conversation partially assuages the guilt Frances feels for leaving the newly expired Franklin in their Upper East Side brownstone some ten years previously (20 in the novel), scandalously going away for the weekend without notifying the authorities. Pfeiffer plays Frances with a thrilling blend of languor and mordancy, but whenever her misdemeanour is mentioned she betrays fear it was an act of madness. She shields herself by visiting contempt on others, such as Mme. Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey), the lonely, good-natured fellow exile who seeks her and Malcolm’s friendship. Frances’s apology to her is the first sign she’s capable of humility.

As deWitt’s postmodern western novel The Sisters Brothers was a gift to Jacques Audiard, so French Exit was to Jacobs with its deceptively light descriptive prose and droll dialogue – Frances and Malcolm’s Noel Coward-like ripostes indicative of her delusional belief in her superiority and his disaffection. Indulging existential ennui, they find their Parisian experience an agitating rite of passage. French Exit becomes increasingly foreboding, despite the story’s farcical turns and the laidback classical-style score composed by deWitt’s younger brother Nicholas.

The film’s present is bookended by flashbacks to when the widowed Frances collected adolescent Malcolm (Eddie Holland) – cruelly rejected by Franklin – from his boarding school, insisting they’d be happy together. The codependency that evolved over the next decade cost Malcolm agency. When Frances tells him they’re moving to France, he automatically abandons his fiancée Susan (Imogen Poots), though their mutual love proves resilient.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Frances Price in French Exit

Jane Austen’s novels similarly précis their protagonists’ family histories to establish their current fraught situations. Austen is in the details here. Frances may be nothing like her orphaned namesake in Mansfield Park, but both – Malcolm, too – are victims of neglect. Unloved when she was married, Frances is so terminally depressed she vows to die once she and Malcolm have spent the money she made selling her house and art. She speeds the process by leaving enormous tips and proffering wads of notes to homeless Parisian men – one scorning her condescension.

Moodily etched by Tobias Datum’s low-lit photography, Frances and Malcolm’s Paris escape is enlivened – and her icy hauteur thawed – by the oddballs who move in with them, including Mme. Renard, Madeleine, Susan, and the affable detective Julius (Isaac de Bankolé) hired to find Small Frank. It’s for this surrogate family that Frances does the washing up. Too little too late – the nocturnal shot in which she recedes from the foreground as she wanders a cobbled street in search of Small Frank, unaware he’s following her, intimates she’s incapable of subduing her demons. Ironically, that may spell liberation for Malcolm.

Further reading

The Sisters Brothers first look: Jacques Audiard takes a delightful detour from the western trail

Jacques Audiard's take on the deathless genre is a mournfully comic yarn that builds at its own loose pace to a surprisingly profound conclusion, writes Jessica Kiang.

By Jessica Kiang

The Sisters Brothers first look: Jacques Audiard takes a delightful detour from the western trail

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