Romances, séances and sadnesses: it must be Paris. Michelle Pfeiffer stars in Azazel Jacob’s French Exit, but with a performance that is the wrong side of OTT, the film verges on ridiculous. Alexander Crisp reviews.
Pfeiffer plays the extraordinarily glamorous Francis Price, a depressed heiress forced to downsize her life and up sticks to Paris in the face of financial difficulties. There’s character development—Price is introduced with unstable edges and vicious upper-class vanity—but these flaws are steadily humanised by the carefully-shielded suicidal depression that’s consuming her life. When the money finally runs out, she plans to make a ‘french exit’ for herself. Overall though, her overwrought approach lends an overly melodramatic edge to proceedings.
Calling Pfeiffer’s performance a ‘character study’ may be the kindest term for a comedy that isn’t that funny, and a drama that isn’t that dramatic. Much like her performance, this study falls somewhere between the two without committing to either. Undergirding that lack of delivery, there’s a quiet sense that more could have been mined out of the screenplay’s ideas—written by Patrick deWitt, author of the book on which the film is based—than is done so. Price’s doomed mental resignation, counting down to death with every euro that she spends, lacks resonance. The ever-expanding entourage residing in her apartment, drawn there by unresolved relationships, romances and circumstance, isn’t quite bohemian enough. The surreal bent implied by Price’s husband—long-dead but reincarnated as a cat—isn’t played up anywhere near as much visually as it ought to be.
These criticisms point an accusing eye toward Azazel Jacobs. His placid direction and the sterile cinematography accompanying it undersell such potential strengths. This may be a movie about ennui, but that doesn’t mean the movie has to be bland. Proceedings are particularly drab until an uncomfortable second-act dinner party injects some levity, with the introduction of Valerie Mahaffey’s bumbling Madame Reynard providing a comic foil for Pfeiffer’s sophistication—though she begins to grate as much as she does on the characters.
The film’s only surprise is an abrupt ending that strives for ambiguity, but instead achieves incompletion. Price reconciles with her husband, allowing the pair to saunter off into the Parisian night while the audience are left cradling a so-so flashback. On reflection, the ambiguity isn’t the problem—one could argue the title “French Exit” informs an off-screen resolution, or that Price’s reconciliation has averted her anticipated demise. But I suspect I’m putting in most of the work with these interpretations—something that feels unfinished is probably just unfinished.
In short, promising narrative material falls short on the big screen. Michelle Pfeiffer commits a little too much, Azazel Jacobs doesn’t commit near far enough. The result is inevitably moderate, and will likely play dull or mildly diverting depending on your mood. For practical advice, Tom Ford’s A Single Man—built on a similar premise—follows through with more style, a shorter run-time, and a more wrenching score. Perhaps the verdict should be to watch that instead.
Words by Alex Crisp
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