Successfully playing with the surreal and ridiculous requires the steadiest of hands. When they're employed lazily, they can be amusing at best, off-putting and incongruous at their worst, but used carefully, they can allow us further in to the inner lives of the characters, amplify the thematic intentions of the film and offer moments of wild, thrilling entertainment. 'French Exit', the latest film from director Azazel Jacobs, sits very much in the latter camp, offering one of the most purely entertaining and surprising films of this year so far.
Widowed New York socialite Frances Price (Michelle Pfeiffer, 'Batman Returns', 'Dangerous Liaisons') has been living for many years off her inheritance from her deceased husband, along with her unusual son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges, 'Ben is Back', 'Lady Bird'). When the money finally runs out, Frances and Malcolm take up the offer of Frances' only close friend Joan (Susan Coyne, 'The Man Who Invented Christmas') to live in her apartment in Paris. Selling everything and hiding their cat, they relocate to Paris, where Frances' eccentricities bring a whole new collection of characters into their lives.
Adapted by Patrick DeWitt from his own novel, 'French Exit' has a gorgeous theatricality mixed with a careful cinematic eye; a mix of Moliere, Pinter, Chekhov and Christopher Durang. Frances' journey is an eternal search for a quiet place to just live her life as she pleases, and the beauty of that journey is that it is one she so thoroughly does not want to be on. She is a woman of enormous privilege which blinds her - along with her malaise and mental illness - from the sudden and crushing entrance of reality. Even in the midst of homelessness, she refuses to accept her change of circumstances, and in many instances, seems intent to help her destruction along. Frances has had enough of the world, of the exhaustion of human interaction and the complications of relationships. In fact, she'd rather like to leave it as soon as possible, with Malcolm her only kind of anchor, but try as she might (and by god, she tries), she cannot help the pull of life and connection, and the quiet beating of a good-hearted nature she'd rather ignore. Those that are pulled into her and Malcolm's orbit are likewise looking for somewhere and someone to belong to, including the even-more eccentric Madame Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey, 'Sully') and Malcolm's confused and put-upon maybe-fiancee Susan (Imogen Poots, 'The Father'). As the film trots along at a lively pace, a newfound family begins to amass in the Paris apartment, a warm and wacky collection of lost souls with the begrudging Frances at the centre.
These ingredients would be enough to make for a charming character piece, but where 'French Exit' excels in its embrace of magic realism and the surreal. It begins in Jacobs' approach, the careful way in which he and cinematographer Tobias Datum frame every shot, a marriage of Wes Anderson and Edward Gorey. Datum fills many of the interior spaces with shimmering artificial light, giving an almost magical quality to production designer Jean-Andre Carriere's gorgeously realised rooms. It's also there in the performances, perfectly calibrated to fall in line with the tone of DeWitt's script and Jacobs' direction. There's always a touch of the unreal about 'French Exit', and this serves it beautifully when the touches become dollops. We're gifted to a delicious series of surprises, some gorgeously strange and others outright bonkers, but the film has earned all of them and thematically justifies them.
Central to its success is the spectacular performance from Michelle Pfeiffer, proving once more (as if we need reminding) what a singular and stellar actor she is. Frances, a maniacal vision with red hair and expensive furs and an eternally-lit cigarette, gives Pfeiffer the opportunity to indulge in the kind of delectable camp she always excels at, chewing every piece of scenery in her path while never losing sight of Frances' melancholy and tragedy. Amid the withering looks and devastating put-downs, Frances is in pain; a lost woman seeking something to give her life some sense of meaning and purpose, to be seen and loved and appreciated. She's a pissed-off Blanche DuBois in the autumn years of her life, desperate for something she can't define and with absolutely no patience for the bullshit that comes with having to deal with other people. Pfeiffer knows exactly what this character and this film needs, and every moment she appears on screen is undiluted, uninhibited joy. She's beautifully matched by a supporting cast that eventually transitions to her ensemble - Lucas Hedges lets his hair down (literally and figuratively) as Malcolm, reminding us how sardonically fun he can be when he's allowed to, and Valerie Mahaffey milks every hysterical moment she appears with such astounding skill that you can't imagine how anyone kept a straight face on set. Acknowledgement must also be made to Frances and Malcolm's cat, Little Frank, the unexpected delight (and centre) of the film.
It had me roaring and cackling with laughter, totally enchanted by its irreverence and good humour.
I really can't do justice to just how thoroughly entertaining a film 'French Exit' is. It had me roaring and cackling with laughter, totally enchanted by its irreverence and good humour. You feel as if you're watching a great piece of classic theatre, where silly rich white people bumble around in fancy rooms, unaware that they're revealing, with their silly irrelevant lives, just how strange and beautiful life and love and sadness and happiness can be. Michelle Pfeiffer's tremendous central performance, full of camp and acid and sadness, would be enough of a reason to see 'French Exit', but it's all the more rewarding for how complete an experience it is. The ridiculous and the surreal are employed for the purpose for which they are always at their best - to make us laugh at how silly life can be, and sigh at the truth that, no matter what, we want to keep living regardless.