The career of Michelle Pfeiffer is one that seems to have many comebacks, but in reality, the Oscar nominee never stopped producing good work. Despite missing half of the 2000s due to a self-imposed hiatus from acting, she still appeared in hits like Hairspray and Stardust, while the 2010s saw her feature in everything from Ant-Man and The Wasp to Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!
French Exit may be one of the quirkier films in her filmography, but it also one of her most engaging performances. She plays Frances, a Manhattan heiress with an abrasive temperament that is indulged because of her wealth. This luxury is taken from her, however, when she finds herself penniless following the death of her husband. Selling everything that isn’t nailed down, she and son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) head to Paris to live in the apartment of a friend. However, romantic entanglements and a possessed cat threaten to derail everything.
As the last sentence suggests, the plot isn’t afraid to take a turn into bizarre territory. While a welcome surprise, the peculiarity becomes a millstone around the film’s neck, as the characters find themselves with nowhere to go. This is literally illustrated at times as the various people in Frances’ life all sit together in the same room, unsure what to do next. Malcolm’s ex Susan (Imogen Poots) and Danielle Macdonald’s Madeleine, a medium they meet on the boat, both have their moments but find themselves ultimately stranded.
However, such weakness barely seem to matter when considering how brilliant Pfeiffer is. It’s as if she’s ambivalent to life itself, peering at everyone in the world as if they were an uninvited guest in her story (which, from her perspective, they are). It’s really difficult to make a character truly vile without putting the viewer off, and the star does it so effortlessly that just sitting in a Parisian café with her is worth the price of admission.
The adaptation of Patrick deWitt’s novel lumbers to a close, eventually overwhelmed by its own silliness and leaving just an impression of the romp it could have been. Still, for all its technical shortcomings, the film has drawn one of the great performances of its star’s career. For many, that will be enough.
French Exit is in cinemas from 2 July.