“I want to see the Eiffel Tower, then die,” replies Frances when a customs officer asks what she plans to do in Paris in “French Exit.”
It’s a joke, but it also might be the truth in Azazel Jacobs’ movie of the Patrick deWitt novel. DeWitt also wrote the screenplay, which retains his deadpan, Wes Anderson-ish wit but is more somber, less sparkling. The singular character of New Yorker Frances Price is at the center of both the book and the movie, in an extraordinary performance by Michelle Pfeiffer.
Frances was once incredibly wealthy but her money has run out, so she converts her stash into euros and hauls her adult son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) to sunny Paris, a sight for her and our sore eyes.
Frances is practically the definition of “privilege” — a woman so used to the comforts of her pampered life that she can’t imagine living without them — and her triple threat of bored/rude/depressed could easily be off-putting. But she is indelible, even delightful, because deWitt has given her a sense of humor, a quirky devotion to her son and a curious but definite moral code (she gives money to a panhandler only after he promises to use it to drink, smoke and gaze at the stars).
Pfeiffer’s etched-cheekbone beauty and crack delivery of deWitt’s Oscar Wilde-like cracks are perfection. Another actor might come off as mean or unworthy of our compassion, but Pfeiffer finds the humanity and humor in lines such as “My plan was to die before the money ran out but I kept not dying and here I am.” Pfeiffer handles the almost Jane Austen-like formality of deWitt’s lines beautifully but can also make one word hilarious, as she does when Malcolm, watching her sharpen a knife, asks if she’s planning to make dinner and she responds with an incredulous/dismissive “Nooooooo.”
“French Exit” (a term that describes leaving a party so that no one notices, a helpful bit of info to know) turns on tiny moments like that “Nooooooo.” It’s the sort of character-rich movie that won’t be for everyone, because for one thing, there is almost no plot. (For another, a key character is a cat, voiced by Tracy Letts, who is the reincarnation of Frances’ late husband.) Instead, it’s a study of a character unlike any other I can recall, an unorthodox woman who achieves a kind of nobility in her insistence on maintaining her dignity. She doesn’t pity herself in “French Exit” and, as a result, we do feel sorry for her.
It is a very difficult movie to describe. Funny and sad, relatable but infuriating, sarcastic but strangely sweet, it sustains a tricky tone even more successfully than Jacobs’ last movie, the Letts/Debra Winger romance “The Lovers.” Years from now, I bet we’ll be saying of it what Frances’ attorney says of her: “They broke the mold with that one.”