Michelle Pfeiffer is Frances Price, a stylish, eccentric New Yorker whose inherited fortune has almost run dry. She’s famous in society circles for her once giant bank account and in the tabloids as the wealthy widow who discovered her husband Franklin (Tracy Letts) dead in his bed, but didn’t report it until after she returned from a planned weekend ski trip. She has lived her life with no apologies and always says what’s on her mind. “The plan was to die before the money ran out,” she says, “but I kept, and keep on, not dying and here I am.”
Her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) has drifted through life since his mother pulled him out of private school at age twelve. They share a rambling mansion, but not everything is out in the open, like his engagement to the prim Susan (Imogen Poots).
With no means to stay in New York, mother, son and their mysterious cat Small Frank (voiced by Tracey Letts), sell off assets and decamp to Paris, staying in the apartment of Frances’ closest friend Joan (Susan Coyne). There, Frances continues her lavish ways, vastly over tipping waiters, going through whatever money is left, as if to fulfill her prophesy that she will go when the money is gone.
An air of ennui hangs heavy over “French Exit” but it’s not a depressing film. The collection of quirky characters—including lonely expat New Yorker Mme Reynaud (Valerie Mahaffey), private investigator Julius (Isaach de Bankole) and clairvoyant Madeleine (Danielle Macdonald)—juice the inherent nihilistic farce out of the story. This doesn’t feel like real life because it isn’t. It takes place in a world constructed by Frances, populated by people who cater to her whims. A séance to locate a missing cat who may, or may not, embody the spirit of her late husband? Sure, and that’s not even her most idiosyncratic request.
At the centre of it all, holding it all together is Pfeiffer. Monumentally self-absorbed and arch, it comes as no surprise when she gets a waiter’s attention by lighting the flowers on her table on fire. She is given to larger-than-life behaviour but as farce gives way to tragedy Pfeiffer takes pains to allow some real humanity to shine through. She is so form-fitted to the character it’s impossible to imagine anyone else hitting the right notes of humour and heartache.
The talented cast stops “French Exit” from becoming a twee Wes Anderson clone. It may not always feel like real life but its unique feel contains just enough earnestness to make an unreal situation feel real and alive.