French Exit review – a duff display case for Pfeiffer’s jewel of a performance

<span>Photograph: Lou Scamble/AP</span>
Photograph: Lou Scamble/AP

Through a steely force of will, with a diamond-cut edge to her performance and a gloss of rarefied disappointment in the world, Michelle Pfeiffer almost redeems this self-consciously quirky adaptation of Patrick deWitt’s novel. She plays Frances Price, a widowed Manhattan socialite whose plan “to die before the money ran out” is thwarted, leaving her virtually penniless, with just her minks and a manicure for comfort.

She decamps to Paris with her son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges, struggling to bring life to a desultory shrug of a character), and her cat, Small Frank, who may or may not be the reincarnation of her late husband. Her plan is to live quietly in a borrowed apartment until the final dregs of her vast inheritance have trickled away. Mother and son encounter, among others, a cruise ship fortune-teller with an unerring gift for predicting imminent death and a private detective hired when Small Frank goes missing. And Malcolm’s on-off girlfriend, Susan (Imogen Poots), hovers on the periphery, scoring a distant second in Malcolm’s affections behind his mother. “Oh, to be young-ish and in love-ish,” drawls Frances, cattily. Too indolent a film to overtly tap into Oedipal imagery, it does at least sketch a cosseted co-dependency between mother and son.

There are plenty of cherishable lines, which Pfeiffer deploys to perfection with the world-weary chagrin of a woman who has just found a supermarket olive in her martini. Other dialogue fails to make the journey from page to screen, sounding jarringly artificial and arch. The picture shares some DNA with the work of Wes Anderson, but this scattershot and rather uneven work lacks the obsessive precision of something like The Royal Tenenbaums. Ultimately, it’s less a fully realised movie, more a display case for Pfeiffer’s jewel of a performance. And there are moments, as Pfeiffer deploys her silky ennui and her venomous purr, where that’s enough.