Can you believe that Michelle Pfeiffer has never won an Academy Award? She’s been nominated three times but has never taken home an Oscar.
Her “Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy” Golden Globe Award nomination for "French Exit" (Sony Pictures Classics/Stage 6) is her eighth (she won for "The Fabulous Baker Boys"). This is mentioned because Pfeiffer could finally win an Oscar, but the competition from Frances McDormand in "Nomadland" and Viola Davis in "Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom" is fierce.
In Azazel Jacobs’ "French Exit," Pfeiffer draws on all her comedic gifts (and some of her dramatic ones, too) to make Frances, a deeply unsympathetic woman, worthy of our time and attention. Think Cate Blanchett’s character in "Blue Jasmine" (which earned Blanchett an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA).
Recently widowed Frances is an itinerant mother and New York socialite who shows up at her son’s prep school on the day he’s about to be kicked out and sweeps him out the door with her. It’s the first time they’ve seen each other in a long time, and this kind of event sets the tone for the rest of the movie.
Over breakfast in their Manhattan townhouse a few years later, Frances reveals to Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) that she has a meeting with her financial guy and it doesn’t look promising. She’s right. “Every penny” in Frances’ account, as well as her investments and property now belong to the bank. She was warned years before but didn’t listen. Now she’s being advised to sell everything — jewelry, art, and books — privately. You see, Frances’ plan was to die before the money ran out but she “kept not dying.”
Malcolm has his own drama to deal with. He’s engaged to Susan (Imogen Poots), but he still hasn’t told Frances. On the night he decides to so, Frances shares her news with him first — “we’re insolvent.”
There are signs of hope. Frances successfully sells everything and ends up with a good sum of cash. Her best friend Joan (Susan Coyne) offers to let her and Malcolm move into her unoccupied Paris apartment. Having converted her dollars into euros, she announces to Malcolm that they are going to France. Malcolm, in turn, breaks the news to Susan who doesn’t take it well.
Frances and Malcolm travel in style, of course, aboard a transatlantic cruise. Along with the family cat, Small Frank. On the luxury liner, Malcolm meets and hooks up with Madeleine (Danielle Macdonald), a fortune teller in a tent who is too good at her job. Not only does she predict the death of one of the passengers, but she also recognizes something special about Small Frank (more about that later).
Frances and Malcolm settle into their Paris life. A confrontation with a rude waiter in a café has a fiery conclusion. A dinner invitation from ex-pat Mme. Reynard (scene-stealer Valerie Mahaffey) gets off on the wrong foot but soon corrects itself in the best way possible. But the good feeling is short-lived when Small Frank runs out of the flat and into the unfamiliar streets. Mme. Reynard comes to the apartment to comfort Frances but she’s inconsolable. That is until she remembers the Madeleine also disembarked in Paris and they need to find her because of her connection to the cat.
Frances hires Julius (Isaach De Bankolé) a private investigator to track down Madeleine who in turn will track down Small Frank. Why the obsession with the cat? Because the soul of Frances’ late husband Franklin is in Small Frank. Once Madeleine is located, there’s a séance where they talk to Small Frank (voiced by Tracy Letts) and attempt to establish a kind of closure.
Before you know it, Joan’s apartment is suddenly crowded. Joan shows up because she thinks Frances will self-harm. Susan and her fiancé Tom (Daniel di Tomasso) arrive because Susan is likely still in love with Malcolm. The only thing taking up less space is Frances’ stash of cash which dwindles daily.
If that seems like a lot to keep track of, it is. But here’s what keeps the offbeat "French Exit" afloat: Jacobs and screenwriter Patrick DeWitt (who also wrote the screenplay to Jacobs’ "Terri" from 2011) have made a movie that draws on only the best elements in Wes Anderson and Woody Allen movies. Absurdity balanced with reality. Pathos offset by humor.
Screen Savor is a weekly column from SFGN’s film critic Gregg Shapiro. Shapiro is an entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in regional LGBT and mainstream media outlets. Shapiro is the author of seven books including the 2019 chapbooks, Sunshine State and More Poems About Buildings and Food. Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.