What is it about cats that bring out the best in Michelle Pfeiffer? Her role as Frances Price in French Exit is up there with Catwoman in Batman Returns. As the reserved and unabashedly cold socialite of French Exit, Pfeiffer plays opposite a little black cat named Small Frank. He’s one heck of a screen partner, and a purrfect counterpoint to Pfeiffer’s own unlikely feline character. In Pfeiffer’s hands, Frances Price could easily be the reincarnation of that cat from the Fancy Feast commercials that ate moist and delicious morsels from crystal goblets. The performance should have been this year’s Best Actress winner. Like the prissy and fluffy kitty, Frances knows good taste, yet she is pure class and elegance, accustom to only the finest and demanding it with her best-in-show poise and composure.
This adaptation of Patrick deWitt’s novel is a deadpan hilarious character study of old money in a new reality. The film might not quite match the league of its source material, but it fares far better than de Witt’s previous book to get the big screen treatment, The Sisters Brothers. Where Jacques Audiard starkly reimagined Sisters’ black comedy, French Exit director Azazel Jacobs (The Lovers) hones in on wacky characters who enliven the drabbest of settings. Pfeiffer lands such a perfect comedic beat that one would think de Witt wrote the book with her in mind. Pfeiffer carries French Exit with a tour-de-force performance that ranks among her strongest work.
Peculiar Cat Fancy
Frances finds her fortune washed up after her years of lavish and unfettered spending outpaces her. Money, unlike cats, does not have nine lives. “My plan was to die before the money ran out,” Frances drolly admits with utter seriousness. The words practically purr out of her, making Frances as impossibly alluring as she is infuriating.
Riddled with debts left behind by her husband, Franklin, who died 12 years earlier, Frances never bothered with work or managing her finances. Her deadbeat son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), inherited her genes for unemployment, lunching, daydrinking, and enjoying expensive things. Ending her days atop New York’s social ladder no longer seems in the cards for Frances. Like a cat after a canary, though, Frances dashes to satisfy her appetite.
The plan involves the titular “French exit” – a hugely underrated term for ducking out of a party without saying goodbye. The Prices—Frances, Malcolm, and Small Frank—sell their things and quietly hop a boat to Paris. The plan is to stay at the empty flat offered by Frances’s friend Joan (Susan Coyne) where they can live rent-free until the money situation resolves itself. On the ride over, though, Malcolm bangs a mystic named Madeline (Danielle Macdonald) who can allegedly foresee deaths in the green haze that hangs atop the nearly departed. (With French Exit and Let Them All Talk, Hedges is having quite the season of kooky cruises.) Frances, meanwhile, mostly keeps to herself and enjoys martinis with the cat. Their relationship is one of peculiar cat fancy.
A scene-stealing Mahaffey
In Paris, though, Small Frank goes missing when Frances tells him what she’ll do when their money runs out. French Exit then follows the reliable comedic tradition of adding more characters to the pot. A lonely socialite, a private detective, an ex-girlfriend, etc. Despite the growing ensemble, however, nobody challenges Frances’ obviously loose screw, nor her accelerating spending habits. She is the stuff of legend in social circles and they’re all eager to enjoy the show.
Frances’s novelty is particularly evident in her magnetic charm to Mme. Reynard (a wonderful Valerie Mahaffey), an American ex-pat in Paris. She invites Frances and Malcolm to dinner and insinuates herself into Frances’s life. Like a homely little sister, Mme. Reynard lets Frances’s retain her grand aura and elevated status at the mere price of a cassoulet and companionship.
But Mme. Reynard also has a story of Frances’s past that is the key to Mrs. Price’s coldness. Her fascination with Frances lies in her ability to remain aloof to criticism that her late husband Frank was a rotten bastard. Frances’s pride, it seems, is well-earned.
The Green Glow
Adapting his own novel, de Witt retains much of the sprightly banter that makes French Exit as darkly funny on film as it is in prose. This is a wry comedy of manners that relishes the minutiae of the upper class. Frances’s stack of cash becomes the hourglass ticking down her fate, and as de Witt conjures kookier ways for Frances to make it rain dollars all over Paris, the character becomes grounded as she doubles down on the frivolity of money.
These scenes accentuate French Exit’s quietly blooming strangeness. The aforementioned “green glow” that Madeline observes in those approaching death becomes inseparable from Frances’s intoxication by money. Two scenes, one near the beginning of French Exit and one near the end, see Frances offer money to homeless men. The first comes on a stroll home through Central Park. Frances finds herself taken in by the romanticism of the man’s poverty. Sharing a cigarette with the man who flatters her, she offers him a twenty with an air of patronising pride. Despite being broke, money is a status symbol to Frances. She later gives a much more generous offering to a man in a Parisian parkette. The transaction confers upon Frances a different kind of status consciousness: a sort of acceptance that she too has not a penny to her name but is seeing green.
French Exit accentuates the light touches of magical realism that are more apparent here than in the novel. (I won’t spoil them, but fans of de Witt’s book should be pleased with the film’s handling of Frank the cat.) Each one makes Frances oddly endearing. She is something from another lifetime, a sort of aristocrat held over from The Age of Innocence when “old money” meant something.
This sophisticated air is inseparable from Pfeiffer’s star status. Pfeiffer carries herself in a cool manner that gives Frances her lived-in edge. Michelle Pfeiffer is ferociously funny in French Exit by playing it straight. Her measured responses and well-cadenced diction ensure that the dry humour of de Witt’s script is casually caustic. Few actors master the art of the resting bitch-face to such hilarious effect. There is a faint, barely perceptible smirk that never leaves her chin, like the masked grin of a Cheshire cat. In Pfeiffer’s hands, Frances is a woman with high tastes and low patience. She is both good company and intolerable, like Moira Rose with a more mannered accent and tasteful wardrobe, but equally so a fish-out-of-water.
Like Moira, Frances finds redemption in her own way by seeing what money can and can’t buy. Although de Witt’s adaptation dispenses with much of Frances’s backstory aside from the tale offered by Mme. Reynard, and a crucial flashback about the day she found Small Frank, she feels like a fuller character by the film’s end. De Witt gives Frances a new fate in the adaptation, one that is equally dire but far more beguiling. Frances might have called herself a cliché by the last page of the book, but she’d hardly say the same by the end credits.