Absurdist cinema is one of the clearest sub-genres to meet the qualification ‘you either ‘get it’ or you don’t’. Often incorporating dark comedy and/or satire and using plot elements that ‘make sense’ to the character (but not the rules of our world), absurdist films often fly in the face of accepted, commonplace genre conventions. It is by definition an experimental sub-genre, one whose most skilled practitioners are some of the greatest filmmakers of their eras—filmmakers such as Buñuel, Lynch, Iñárritu, Lanthimos, and Kaufman. French Exit, closing out the 58th annual New York Film Festival, sees Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges through a succession of surreal experiences, and it’s a shining example of the potential of absurdist cinema.
Pfeiffer plays 65-year-old New York widow Frances Price, a woman whose savings, unexpectedly and unfortunately, has run out. (to quite Price, “My plan was to die before the money ran out, but I kept and keep not dying”.) Having grown accustomed to ample wealth and opportunity, the socialite faces financial ruin and decides to escape the city to relocate to a friend’s empty Paris apartment, along with her son Malcolm (an excellent Lucas Hedges) and cat Small Frank (who may or may not be possessed by her deceased husband). They meet a variety of odd characters, Malcolm struggles with leaving fiancé Susan (Imogen Poots), and in general the pair suffer through a series of strange experiences—they certainly suffer, but the audience doesn’t, thanks to a smartly written script and an excellent character turn from Pfeiffer.
Directed by Azazel Jacobs (The Lovers) from a script by Patrick deWitt (who also wrote the novel the script adapts), the script is a charming and curious romp that gets better the harder it commits to situational absurdity. Jacobs’s skilled direction maintains an engaging pace and larger-than-life tone that really sell the stranger, funnier aspects of the script. Pfeiffer deserves commendation as well for building a memorable character—her larger-than-life widower flaunts lofty expectations and energetic charisma. While Pfeiffer’s long been an esteemed actress, this is easily one of her more memorable (and fun) roles in recent memory.
Hedges’ relatively understated turn as Malcolm is well-performed but muted by comparison (he simply isn’t given as much good material), but it’s the supporting players that steal the show. Danielle Macdonald’s ‘Madeleine’ maintains excellent screen presence and comedic delivery as the medium that Malcolm becomes very familiar with on board the Price’s cruise voyage, and Valerie Mahaffey, as lonely widowed expat Madame Reynaud, has such perfect comedic delivery that she may be my favorite character in any film this year.
The film’s greatest issue, perhaps, is that it comparably shortchanges Hedges at times, giving Malcolm relatively little to do or missing opportunities to add context and understanding to his character (and in particular, his backstory and complex relationship to Frances). Those deeper elements are present to some degree, but there are a number of moments where the film’s drama and ‘heart’ could come out stronger with greater attention to Malcolm’s inner life. This grievance aside, the film by-and-large still lands and is a worthy watch for the characters alone.
Altogether the film descends into a whimsical farce that should be experienced instead of spoiled. Still, if you ever wanted to see a widow consult a psychic medium to find an escaped cat that houses the soul of her dead husband (and you definitely do), it’s a descent into comic absurdity that you shouldn’t miss, marked by some fantastic central performances and well-written dialogue.
French Exit will be released in the U.S. by Sony Pictures Classics on February 12th, 2021.