As if rebounding as far as possible from her hard-luck character in the 2018 drama “Where Is Kyra?,” Michelle Pfeiffer glams it up as an imperious New York dowager in “French Exit.” Floating through scenes in fur-trimmed coats and slinky peignoirs, nose in the air and martini glass in a death grip, Pfeiffer is Frances Price, a diva of disdain.
The role is far juicier than the movie around it, a melancholy farce of disappearing privilege and insouciant parenting.
“It’s all gone,” Frances’s accountant says, referring to her money. Yet the line encapsulates the essence of a movie that trembles with loss: Looks, home, love and life itself are on the fade. After years of ignoring her dwindling fortune, Frances, along with her depressive adult son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), must sell up and accept the loan of a friend’s vacation apartment in Paris. The length of stay is undefined, but, this time, Francis doesn’t intend to outlast the dribble of cash that remains.
Too listless to fizz and too peculiar to win us over, “French Exit,” directed by Azazel Jacobs, is hampered by clockwork quirkiness and disaffected dialogue. What little there is of a plot — which includes multiple séances and a talking cat — doesn’t so much progress as coagulate around a coterie of eccentrics: A pathetically lonely expat (Valerie Mahaffey), a mirthless fortuneteller (Danielle Macdonald) and a smooth private investigator (Isaach De Bankolé), all of whom will eventually congregate in the Paris apartment. Not-so-high jinks ensue.
Adapting his 2018 novel of the same name, Patrick DeWitt holds fast to his amoral heroine, a woman whose sometimes appalling behavior is neither apologized for nor regretted. Its reverberations, though, have shaped Malcolm into a passive companion, so devoted he’s willing to dump his fiancée (Imogen Poots) to accompany his mother to Paris. The character is a drip, and Hedges, despite a commendable refusal to steer into the skid for comic gain, never makes him remotely interesting.
Pfeiffer is flat-out fabulous here, at once chilly and poignant. As Frances dispenses the last of her money to homeless men in the park, her largess seems more to do with weariness than compassion, her beneficiaries simply useful receptacles for something she no longer needs. A strange mixture of highbrow looniness and quiet rue, “French Exit” is finally less about one woman’s desire to die than about her inability to summon the energy to live.
Rated R for a disgusting death and a great deal of drinking. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes. In select theaters. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.
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