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a woman and her son sitting in the back of a car
Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges in French Exit.
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

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French Exit doesn’t quite know what to do with its talking cat

The film is Michelle Pfeiffer’s show

Polygon is reporting from the remote edition of the annual New York Film Festival, bringing you first looks at the upcoming movies headed to theaters, streaming services, and awards season. This review came from a New York Film Festival screening.

The basic premise of French Exit is playful: Frances (Michelle Pfeiffer), recently widowed and running out of money, moves to Paris with her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) and their cat Small Frank, who just so happens to be her reincarnated husband (Tracy Letts).

The quirkiness quotient only goes up given that the rest of the cast includes a clairvoyant (Danielle Macdonald), a private investigator (Isaach de Bankolé), and a breathless fan of Frances’ who styles herself as “Madame Reynard” (Valerie Mahaffey). Pfeiffer is wonderful in a role that demands she be as defiant and as catty as possible; Frances is as sharp and as clear as can be. The rest of the movie, which strives to ground its strangeness in reality, doesn’t quite manage to coalesce to a similar point.

Both Frances and Malcolm, whose relationship is mostly solid apart from how little they talk about the late Frank, might be their own worst enemies. Frances, who, in her more melodramatic moments, threatens to kill herself when the money runs out, practically gives money away, leaving a 100 Euro bill on the table at a cafe after just having coffee. Malcolm, who has just become engaged to his girlfriend Susan (Imogen Poots), can’t find the guts to tell his mother about the development, and leaves Susan in New York when Frances suggests they flee to Paris. When Susan tries to move on, he takes offense, telling her that they’re still engaged.

The supernatural thread of the story is slowly teased out as the family settles in France. Small Frank goes missing, prompting Frances to hire a clairvoyant who previously saw Small Frank for what he was. She then serves as their gateway to communicate with Frank via seance, at which point Letts’ disembodied voice converses with the gathered characters about everything from family history to his discomfort with fleas. The twist is welcome insomuch as it’s an unusually mischievous way of addressing how difficult it can be to move on from a loved one’s death (or the death of someone who was formerly a loved one), and director Azazel Jacobs (The Lovers) treats the supernatural so naturally that it doesn’t seem like a “gotcha” prank or gimmick.

The other elements of the film never quite come together. More and more people come into Frances and Malcolm’s orbit, but the growing cast also means a growing number of loose ends. At a painfully awkward first meeting with Madame Reynard, who invites the mother and son over, unprompted, in the hope that they might become friends, Malcolm discovers a dildo in the freezer. The scene feels unnecessary — it’s already clear that Madame Reynard is a little strange from the conversation thus far, and if it’s some comment on the strange things people do in order to cope with loss (Reynard has lost her husband as well), that side of the argument is never addressed, nor is the object ever brought up again.

The performances do a good chunk of the work in helping smooth over the film’s rough edges. Mahaffey is particularly memorable, as she imbues Reynard with a few tics and strange traits (to move from one part of a couch to another, she crawls over the cushions) that make it clear that she’s not a woman who has had much experience in social situations. But Pfeiffer’s performance is the rock on which Jacobs builds everything. The story that Reynard tells about her — that, upon meeting a detractor, she was so indifferent that the would-be gloater could feel nothing but shame — seems larger than life, but it’s believable given one look at Pfeiffer’s face. She still exudes a sense of strength, even if, as Frances, she’s not entirely sure where she’s going, and watching her light a table setting on fire when a waiter refuses to attend to them is incredibly satisfying.

That there ultimately isn’t too much plot doesn’t weigh French Exit down. It’s less a mystery or drama, though Small Frank’s disappearance certainly spurs on some action, and more a character study as to how these people react to the big and small upheavals in their lives, and how Frances and Malcolm connect with each other, or don’t, as Frank’s neglect of them both has left some emotional scars. The performances and the root of the story are compelling, but having something as strange as a talking cat feels worth further investigation.

French Exit will be released on Feb. 12, 2021.