REVIEW

French Exit is a stylish take on the social divide in New York and Paris

French Exit (M, 113 minutes)

Three stars

In this glamorous, gloomy comedy that is the perfect showcase for the talents of Michelle Pfeiffer, a Manhattanite sells up and leaves for France with her adult son in tow.

Once a stellar socialite, Francis Price (Pfeiffer), a widow for 12 years, decides that she will take up the offer from a friend of an apartment in Paris. Why would you not?

There seems little left for Francis in New York, with the wealth she has inherited from her dead husband soon to run out. It's inconceivable. She was planning to die before she became insolvent.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Frances Price and Lucas Hedges as Malcolm Price in French Exit. Picture: Tobias Datumas/Sony Pictures Classics

Michelle Pfeiffer as Frances Price and Lucas Hedges as Malcolm Price in French Exit. Picture: Tobias Datumas/Sony Pictures Classics

Francis is quite a gal. One who crushes meds and who-knows-what-else with her stiletto heel, who enjoys the sound of a knife being sharpened, and she has a gift for putting people down.

Her son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), has to go along with the plan to move countries, despite having become engaged to a sweet girl, Susan (Imogen Poots). The process of individuation from his remaining parent has a way to go.

Mother and son travel across the Atlantic on board ship. If there were any available millionaires, or billionaires, on board they weren't sighted, though Francis is invited to a seat at the captain's table.

Malcolm has a one-night stand with a young fortune teller, Madeleine the Medium (Danielle Macdonald) whose predictions give an old lady passenger a cardiac arrest.

Francis is quite the self-obsessed diva. Her character doesn't quite approach Joan Crawford or Bette Davis or other grand dames of cinema's golden age remembered for bitchy roles, yet it is wonderful seeing Pfeiffer, still beautiful and elegant, as a woman who doesn't like herself much. By the same token, it isn't easy spending time in her company.

The comedy isn't without playful moments, such as when Francis strikes back as she and Malcolm wait endlessly for the bill in a Paris restaurant. After gesturing to staff without result, Malcolm gets up, goes over to the cashier and asks for politely for l'addition. Only to be rudely ignored as the waiter who makes a point of going outside to smoke a cigarette instead. The counter move that Francis comes up with is a hoot.

With this short scene and some others, the comedy briefly breaks free of its ennui. The engaging scenes with the entourage of friends and acquaintances that mother and son collect in Paris is another.

Then there is the mystery of the black cat. Small Frank (Tracy Letts voicing) who is glimpsed sunning himself on the carpet and trotting along the hallway is obviously part of the family. His significance grows as the narrative develops after being smuggled into America in Francis' hand luggage.

The mystery of the cat is quite diverting. Suggestive, along with the low-lit interiors, of witches and bad luck, but it's not diverting enough. Although Pfeiffer is amazing, the two-and-a-half hours of running time can seem slow going.

It's a pity, because French Exit is replete with good performances. As Madame Reynard, Valerie Mahaffey is terrific, a real counterfoil to steely Francis, and Susan Coyne as friend Joan makes her mark too. Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea, Lady Bird) is as consistently convincing as ever, and Imogene Poots is too.

Everything of course hangs on the performance of the central role, and Michelle Pfeiffer more than measures up. It is a reminder of how well she acts.

She is sensational in her nuanced, multi-faceted performance as a woman who has queened it over society while young, but is uncertain of how to proceed as she ages.

Wealth and privilege can bring its own particular challenges. French Exit, from a book and a screenplay by Patrick DeWitt, and directed by Azazel Jacobs, acknowledges the social divide.

The younger generation, like Malcolm and Madeleine, has a certain material disadvantage and must rely on their wits, and an older generation is materially comfortable but short on empathy.

So French Exit, for all the talent on board, only gets traction some of the time over its two hours' running time. Pfeiffer's performance, on the other hand, may make it worthwhile.

This story A stylish city take on social divides first appeared on The Canberra Times.