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‘French Exit’ Allows Michelle Pfeiffer To Float Gloriously In a Unique Reality

April 2, 2021
4 min read time

French Exit has notes of The Squid and The Whale and whimsy reminiscent of Wes Anderson, but director Azazel Jacobs, actress Michelle Pfeiffer, and writer Patrick DeWitt (based on his novel of the same name) have created a universe all their own. One could call it melancholy farce, a glorious final romp, or simply an ode to mortality, and all would be accurate. 

Jacobs states he was instantly attracted to the project. “I read it all in one sitting. It’s a world of strangers in strange places I wanted to escape into. It’s odd people in an odd time and odd places, and I wanted to make a movie about these people.” 

Pfeiffer plays Frances Price, a widowed, formerly monied matriarch who has, unfortunately, run out of money. Frances’s most treasured companions are her cat, Small Frank, and her son, Malcolm Price (played by Lucas Hedges who does much with a glance, half smile and a single suit).  

Malcolm equally worships Frances, as they both delight in living life outside the lines of normal. It’s clear Jacobs delights in the mother-son relationship and the complicated, delicate and tender dynamic that can result in closeness. As Jacobs fans will recall, the director broke through with the Sundance darling, Momma’s Man that starred Jacobs’ own mother.

Of the Malcolm and Frances relationship, Jacobs muses, “What was very interesting about this story was who is the parent to whom alternated from scene to scene, shifting the power of love between them. Malcolm is stuck as this kid, even though he’s pretty much the same age as his mom when she picked him up from boarding school when he was twelve. Thus he’s stayed twelve, even though he’s grown into a young adult. There are many instances I can point to where Malcolm is the wisest in the room, and the most protective in a way a parent should be.”

Perhaps this is all the more reason Pfeiffer is infinitely watchable in the piece. She commands every scene simply by emanating emotion with the lighting of a cigarette or sideways glance like the seasoned professional actor that she is. It is clear Jacobs and Pfeiffer spent time crafting Frances.

Jacobs valued a nice amount of lead up time to rehearse. “She signed on before the script was finished and helped continue to shift and shape it. What she loved was the book it was based on. We had a lot of conversations going from book to script and questioning back and forth what other elements of the book were essential for character. It felt like an equal collaboration with Michelle and she was always bringing things up. I never had the opportunity to think about hair color, but we had a big conversation about it and it became such an integral part to Frances, allowing her to step out of herself. We also worked to find her lighter that had that weight and feel that felt correct. And Michelle worked to get used to it so it felt like she’d been using it for 30 or 40 years. Michelle’s detailed approach asked the same of me, and it turned me into a better director.”

Frances and Malcolm seem to inhabit their own reality. Readers of DeWitt’s book often remarked the story could just as well be in the late 1800s as yesterday, and give DeWitt much credit for an absurdist reality that feels both real and unreal all at once. Jacobs’ movie absolutely captures the spirit of the book, and he worked hard to do so.

“I wanted to create a world I did not know, as the book is based in a world that nobody knows. The smallest percentage of people live in a gilded cage like that which Frances grew up in, and I was interested in how do we make this timeless. When you are as wealthy as Frances, you don’t exist on the same time as everyone else. You don’t need a cell phone. You take pride in the fact you don’t have a cellphone. You are unreachable.” The noticeable lack of modern conveniences and the transportation to a place where people take their time with a martini or a tea party truly gives the feeling of a Parisian world that is real yet mythical. A place only some people dwell in. A place where rich women gift waiters large tips, yet also won’t hesitate to set restaurants on fire. 

Even Pfeiffer’s feline costar is just as mystically epic as she is in Jacobs’ fanciful world. “To find a cat that feels soulful, that’s every cat. That’s the easiest part,” effuses Jacobs of his cats that played Small Frank. “Lucy and Spartacus wound up becoming incredibly comfortable with the production and crew. We had a really good crew, but we also had really great cats, and a very talented cat wrangler.” Pfeiffer as Frances also never lets the audience doubt her connection to her dead husband is via the gorgeous, four-legged friend. Every scene she acts with just a cat is just as powerful as if she were working with a human, because in Frances’s mind, she is simply carrying on a conversion with her husband. 

Inevitably when one goes through a big life event, like living life as a widow and accidentally, or perhaps purposefully spending a large fortune, existential crisis and the meaning of existence comes into play. In Frances's case, there is no exception. Jacobs states on the matter of Frances’s perspective: “In a conversation about someone’s relationship to life and death, you cannot win. You just have to listen. One thing I love about Frances is she lives life on her own terms. I like stories about people who live life on their own terms, and that’s also the way this movie was made.” 

While it’s true the film feels like Frances’s world and those around her are just living in it, it’s a joy to experience regardless. Of the film’s unique tone, Jacobs says: “I like to find the humor in the humor and the seriousness in the drama, but I also dig for the humor in the serious areas, and the seriousness in the humorous areas — for me, that is what most reflects life. Time equals comedy in the most tragic of circumstances and that can cause one to see horrific events in a different light.”

Just like the unique way Frances lights her cigarette, her signature flick of the lighter, and her fiery streaks of red roiling through her whitening hair, Frances and her world are true originals, just like Jacobs’ French Exit which will most certainly transport its audience into a realm they will not soon forget. 

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