My plan was to die before the money ran out.
Frances Price (Michelle Pfeiffer) married Franklin Prince (Tracy Letts) and they had a son named … Malcolm (Lucas Hedges)? I guess continuing the name gag to make him Frankie or François was a bit “too far” for screenwriter Patrick deWitt (adapted from his novel). I don’t blame him and director Azazel Jacobs for drawing that line, though, considering I didn’t register the similarity until after the fact anyway. It’s just one more straight-faced joke layered atop the rest to either recognize and smirk at or gloss over completely in lieu of the farcical way these two men have crafted a story about deplorable people all but begging to earn our sympathy despite wanting none of it. The film’s title is French Exit after all. Caring ruins the mystique.
The tragedy is therefore the fact that Pfeiffer and Hedges imbue their characters with the emotional desire to be loved. They have the potential and perhaps even the yearning to embrace the vulnerability necessary to absorb it if not for being too entrenched in their socialite lifestyle to truly understand what those feelings mean. Reputation trumps desire. Fear trumps happiness. And the walls they’ve built out of money become both their salvation and their prison. Only now that those borders are crumbling does Frances find the room to change even if that transformation occurs on superficial levels of feigning decency, botching charity, and tripping over a lifetime of cultivated detachment to dare reach out a hand for help. Redemption isn’t hers to earn, but for others to give.
So her ability to find companionship in Paris—where she and Malcolm move thanks to an apartment gifted by her one true friend Joan (Susan Coyne) upon realizing the wealth they lived off these twelve years since Franklin’s death in New York City was gone—is less about her doing than her indifference. Where she’d laugh in the face of a lonely widow like Madame Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey) a month ago (something she does now too before Malcolm calls her out), she’s now comforted by the simplicity of not being alone. Her mind only pretended that she wasn’t back then because of her son (despite treating him like a possession more than a child) and her cat Little Frank (who may or may not contain her husband’s soul).
That Reynard, a private detective (Isaach De Bankolé‘s Julius), and an American medium (Danielle Macdonald‘s Madeleine) all end up being Frances’ houseguests is probably less about her indifference and more about her ego anyway. The reason she gave Reynard the benefit of the doubt was because of an anecdote that reminded her of her strength. Even Frances’ selflessness is thus a product of selfishness. She wants to be the center of attention. She wants to be known either because she’s a big tipper or because she can inspire others with her complete lack of empathy when it comes to negotiations or revenge. She wants to be remembered when she dies and she wishes she had already since keeping those appearances up is hard work. Maybe the time’s arrived.
With it, however, arrives our own indifference. That Frances wants to be remembered without caring (her lack thereof might make more people remember) is her right and she cherishes it. But giving her two hours of screen-time generally means we should. My inability to do so thus ensures that I couldn’t truly care about the film she’s in either. Pfeiffer is fantastic as always and Hedges is fine (Mahaffey actually steals the show with her earnest fan-girling and utter lack of tact), but their dynamic is forever strained in a way that frustrated me beyond end. Is she helping him? Does he pity her? The pain they feel is real and the silence they share is resonant, but one climactic “I love you” doesn’t just make things okay.
It’s as though they’re simultaneously testing each other by throwing each other into the deep end to see if they’ll swim. They’re preparing for a life apart that both know is on the horizon and yet it’s handled with such a cold ambivalence that I wondered if we were about to find out they actually hated each other instead. So we wade through their haughtiness. We laugh at their superiority complexes (Frances’ response to a French waiter refusing to give her the bill is priceless). And ultimately smile when deWitt and Jacobs take things so far into absurdity that we have to question everything else before and after it (there’s nothing like a nonplussed group of non-believers enjoying a highly effective séance). But to what end?
The moments meant to hit hard (Frances attempting to give a French homeless man thousands of dollars) end with a whimper and those included for peripheral laughs hold meaning (see the cross-Atlantic ship’s doctor’s alcoholic yarn of melancholic futility). Some stuff hits right (Frances’ encounter with a New York homeless man), but then fade because we can’t quite get a pulse on this character. Is Frances worthy of our empathy or our derision? Does complexity exist or merely a desire to loosely string humorous skits together with an increasingly odd collection of supporting roles fueling the nonsense that clouds what might actually be a poignant message buried too far beneath it? I honestly don’t know. In the end I wonder if I simply didn’t “get” what was happening.
And that’s fine. If the divisiveness surrounding French Exit is any indication, that’s the point. So while I can’t embrace its dramatic import, I can enjoy its comically subversive caricature of aristocratic behavior. It’s not enough to applaud the whole, but I’d never steer anyone away from doing exactly that. Because there is an interesting (if blatantly spoken aloud towards the end) commentary about trapping ourselves in prisons of our own making only to discover we’ve never been happy a day in our lives. To see Frances in France is to see her shed some of her mask even if it’s just to give her curtain call. Will Malcolm fare better with or without Susan (Imogen Poots) in her place? Maybe. But does it matter? You tell me.
 Left to Right: Michelle Pfeiffer as Frances Price, Lucas Hedges as Malcolm Price Image by Tobias Datumas. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.