Oh, to be rich-ish and happy-ish. French Exit is sort of an odd bird, waxing poetically about the nature of the wealthy privileged class and their nihilistic tendencies. There’s an eccentric listlessness that is compelling despite its torpor, a bizarre, through-the-looking-glass glimpse at a brand of American aristocracy that is out of time and out of place. They’re a dying breed, or at least they should be. French Exit is a broad ensemble dramedy, but it lives and dies on the power of Michelle Pfeiffer’s lead performance: she swans through every scene with a morbid sort of vitality, inventing quirks of her eyebrows and unconventional line readings that no one’s ever heard before. Aside from her, the production tends to lose its way on more than one occasion. It has brief moments of rare emotion and beauty, but between those, French Exit has a meandering quality that leaves the viewer peculiarly unsatisfied.
Frances (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Malcolm Price (Lucas Hedges) have led a truly charmed life. Even when the extremely codependent mother-son duo (whose unhealthy relationship borders on that of Lucille and Buster Bluth from Arrested Development) fall on hard times and lose the lion’s share of their fortune, they still manage to land on their feet. (Much like their cat, Little Frank, who may or may not house the spirit of Frances’ dead husband.) In a clutch moment, a family friend offers them the use of her frequently vacant Paris apartment, so they sell off their last remaining possessions and book a steamer ship to Europe.
This ship is one of the first indications that French Exit operates within some sort of dreamscape reality, capturing a world that has either ceased to exist or was never real to begin with. It’s hard to date French Exit from the clothes or the decor — it feels entirely disconnected from any particular moment in time. By the same token, it blurs the line between reality and the paranormal, where cats can embody the spirits of dead spouses, and psychics can tell when people are near death by the hue of their auras. All of this together builds an otherworldly atmosphere that brings Paris and our bizarre little family to life.
A lot of French Exit feels as though it’s aiming to be a sort of downbeat version of Wes Anderson, and it certainly uses the same ensemble-building tactics of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. There are dozens of purposefully quirky side characters, some of whom make a real impression, but others which only serve to muddy the narrative waters and make what is a superficial storyline unnecessarily convoluted. The one real star among the supporting players is Valerie Mahaffey as Mme. Reynard, an incredibly lonely widow who extends a hand of friendship to the taciturn and standoffish Prices. Her presence injects real energy into French Exit, and she effortlessly steals scenes from everyone she is paired up with. Others are decidedly less effective. There seems little reason for the amount of screen time devoted to Malcolm’s ex-fiance Susan (Imogen Poots) and her new boyfriend Tom (Daniel di Tomasso), both of whom bring the plot to a standstill whenever they appear.
There is an undeniable charm to their exploits, the airy actions of the ultra-wealthy who are accustomed to a certain lifestyle and aren’t going to change just because of a little thing like losing all their money. This sense of aimlessness speaks to the nature of life without any responsibilities, and the blithe detachment it breeds. Frances and Malcolm have been hollowed out by the lack of meaning to their lives, and it’s unclear if they feel much of anything anymore. It’s an engaging subject, but where French Exit makes a misjudgment is that it’s as rudderless as its characters. If you want to tell a story about people whose extreme wealth has given them no direction in life and completely numbed them emotionally, the sense of inertia needs to come from either the narrative or stylistic choices. Instead, French Exit feels compelled to match their listlessness with its own, creating a drama that is lovely to look at any has a few bright spots when it’s able to rouse itself from a stupor, but lacks any sense of purpose that would make it truly satisfying.