French Exit (2021)

There was a lot going on in Darren Aronofsky’s Biblical whatsit mother!, all of it worthy of many fractured, contradictory conversations.  To us, it was both a 2.5-star misfire and one of the very best movies of 2017.  To others, it was simply an embarrassment to all involved, most notably Jennifer Lawrence as titular mother figure, who rarely leaves the screen.  In all those heated debates over mother!‘s merits, metaphors, and malice, I think we may have still overlooked one of its wildest, most deliciously fucked up ingredients: Michelle Pfeiffer.  An eternally lovable screen presence who’s been shamefully sidelined in the past couple decades, Pfeiffer pounced into mother! like a cat hunting unsuspecting prey, batting Jennifer Lawrence around with a mean-drunk indifference I found thrillingly campy & cruel.  It felt like a seismic shift in Pfeiffer’s career at the time, but then nothing really came of it – conversationally, professionally, or otherwise.

Finally, a proper career resurgence vehicle for a post-mother! Michelle Pfeiffer has arrived . . . and it’s being met with the same unenthused shrug she got back in 2017.  French Exit expands Pfeiffer’s role as a cruel, vamping drunk in mother! to a feature-length drag routine.  She delivers nothing but deliciously vicious camp from start to end here, easily putting in one of her career-best performances.  The response has been muted at worst, divided at best.  Maybe the movie would’ve earned more momentum in non-pandemic times, when word of mouth would’ve reached the exact right audience for what Pfeiffer is doing here.  Maybe the world would never be ready for Michelle Pfeiffer to star in an erudite revision of Leaving Las Vegas for pompous, affluent drag queens.  Who knows?  All I can report is that every bitchy barb, quip, and eyeroll she lands in French Exit is a precious gift to the few jaded cynics on the movie’s wavelength.

Pfeiffer stars as an heiress & former NYC It Girl who has completely depleted her dead husband’s fortune.  She decides to sell off the remainder of his estate for spending money, then fucks off to Paris with her adoring adult son (Lucas Hedges) in tow.  Her long-term plan is to kill herself when her funds run dry, something she announces in a matter-of-fact, smirking tone.  Despite the morbidity of that premise, there isn’t much grandeur or pathos to the film’s plot, as the mother-son duo aren’t especially emotional in demeanor.  Most scenes are slight, low-key episodes: a cross-Atlantic boat ride, an awkward dinner party, a search for a runaway cat, etc.  However, if you’re in tune with Pfeiffer’s scenery chewing (and Hedges’s studied impersonation of her faded, jaded glamour) there’s a dark humor to each of those episodes that will have you howling at even the slightest facial expression and casually tossed-off insult.

I’m surprised to learn that French Exit was based off a novel (adapted by author-turned-screenwriter Patrick deWitt himself), since its witty banter and for-the-back-row vamping feels so firmly rooted in stage play dialogue.  The best I can approximate its cruel, quirky tone is to imagine Wes Anderson directing an adaptation of The Boys in the Band, but even that description doesn’t cover its absurdist supernatural plot twists, which I will not spoil here.  Most importantly, French Exit is a Nic Cagian showcase for one of our greatest actors to go as big and as broad as she pleases from gag to gag.  Sometimes those payoffs are muted, finding her sharpening a kitchen knife in total darkness or absentmindedly musing about the sad nature of dildos.  At other times, she sets literal fires, slipping into full camped-up Cruella de Ville mania.  In either instance, she’s electrically, fabulously entertaining, and we all should be groveling at her feet for more performances in this vein.

-Brandon Ledet

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