French Exit film review: the story’s deadly but Michelle Pfeiffer sparkles with life

 (film handout)
(film handout)

Michelle Pfeiffer could lick a stamp and make it feel like an event, yet hasn’t been at the centre of a feature film since 2017. Here she takes the lead in a slice of magical realism scripted by the playful Patrick deWitt, adapting his own novel, which he calls a “tragedy of manners”. Sounds intriguing, right?

Frances (Pfeiffer), a New York socialite, once took part in the languid murder of an unkind man (her husband, Frank). For years, she and her son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), have been living off Frank’s money and enjoying the company of a black cat (“Small Frank”) they believe is possessed by Frank’s spirit. With the money all but gone, Frances relocates to a pal’s Paris pad, along with Malcolm (who has a fiancée, by the way). One day, Frances tries to kill “Small Frank” who, naturally, scarpers. Shenanigans involving a medium, a private detective and said fiancée ensue.

French Exit begs to be viewed as a risqué romp. A refridgerated dildo is the cornerstone of a memorable sequence and Frances is fond of the word “f***ed”.

There’s also a thematic overlap with Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks. A well-dressed and outrageously louche parent treats their off-spring like a lover (one woman assumes Malcolm is Frances’ gigolo), as an upbeat and jazzy score, along with shots of a retro-pretty city, keep the mood light. On the Rocks worked, though, because Coppola put the focus on her wonderful leads. DeWitt, by contrast, introduces a plethora of one-note figures, most of whom, thanks to director Azazel Jacobs, mingle drably. Nor is the talking cat (that’s right, Small Frank is chatty and he’s voiced by Tracy Letts) all that.

Still, Pfeiffer is mesmerising in encounters with Valerie Mahaffey’s Madame Reynard (the meek owner of the dildo) and Susan Coyne’s Joan (Frances’ steady best friend). Scenes in which Frances and Joan lock eyes across a crowded room and later leap into a bed, (“We’re little old ladies!” shrieks Frances) provide an especially lovely jolt.

How ironic. The film may be a dead-end, yet 63-year-old Pfeiffer has never seemed so alive or full of promise.

In cinemas. 113mins, cert 15

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