Directed by Azazel Jacobs from a 2018 book by Patrick deWitt, “French Exit” stars the inimitably beautiful Michelle Pfeiffer. It helps to know that a “French exit” happens when an individual departs in a hurry without saying goodbye.
As grande dame Frances Price, Pfeiffer gives a tour-de-force performance and carries the film. Wearing glamorous garb, Frances is an elegant and moneyed widow who discovers herself penniless. But first, in a flashback, she collects her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), then 12, and sets off with him in her darkly humorous way. Much later, in a throwaway line, the viewer learns she’s been in jail, most likely for neglecting her husband after he chokes to death.
As a young adult, tagalong Malcolm follows his mother around like so much extra baggage, even while he is loosely engaged to Susan (Imogen Poots). Frances’ friend Joan (Susan Coyne) offers her the empty Paris apartment she owns. So Frances sells her luxurious New York apartment and its contents for a pile of Euros that, when she and Malcolm get to Paris, she casually dispenses at every opportunity.
There isn’t much to the plot except the bizarre and comic events that transpire. For instance, Frances introduces Little Frank (the voice of Tracy Letts), in the form of a black cat whom she finds perched on her dead husband Frank’s chest, licking his face. Frances explains that Frank’s spirit now inhabits Little Frank. But perhaps the funniest example is Frances’ retaliation against an arrogant French waiter by setting fire to the flower arrangement on her and Malcolm’s lunch table.
A coterie of Frances’ admirers gather in the apartment, one by one. First comes Mme. Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey), an ex-New Yorker now an expat in awe of Frances and eager to make her acquaintance. She invites Frances and Malcolm to a party, at which she is the only participant, explaining that she’s lonely and looking for friendship. Frances casually brushes her off, announcing she has no need of friends, but Mme. Reynard nevertheless attaches herself to Frances and her apartment. Once the cat runs off, Frances enlists private investigator Julian (Isaach De Bankolé) to locate cruise ship employee and local medium Madeleine, who may be able to find Little Frank.
Frances holds forth among these friends and acquaintances, who all end up spending the night in Frances’ Paris apartment. Instead of finding Little Frank the cat, Madeleine conducts a séance and talks to him, although the cat still doesn’t show up. Concerned that a postcard from Frances suggests she plans to commit suicide, Joan shows up in a panic at the Paris apartment. But Frances assures her that her threat was only temporary. Adding to the group are Susan and Tom (Daniel diTomasso), one of her earlier boyfriends, but it soon becomes clear that Susan is still smitten with Malcolm. Finally, while her friend and acquaintances are sleeping, Frances leaves, walking down the street with Little Frank following her. That is her French exit, but it isn’t what happens next.
Information and tickets for “French Exit,” showing only at the Film Center, are available at mvfilmsociety.com.