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‘The French Exit’ review; Dir. Azazel Jacobs (2020) [NYFF]

The film closed this year’s NYFF.

Photo by Tobias Datum. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

Closing this year’s NYFF was Azazel Jacobs’ latest feature The French Exit, an adaptation of Patrick DeWitt’s acclaimed novel about an eccentric mother and son duo forced to relocate after their finances start dwindling – penned by DeWitt himself for the screen.

Frances (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a champagne-swirling socialite dealing with the loss of her wealthy husband. Although it’s not exactly “dealing with it” in the traditional sense; instead of reporting the dead body to the authorities when she came across it, she took a vacation to go skiing and dealt with it upon her return. A decade later and the money she was left with is starting to dry up and Frances doesn’t really know what to do with herself when it does. So she packs up her things and, alongside her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), sets out for Paris to spend the rest of her days. But it proves to be a troublesome trip when they discover that their pet cat is possessed by the late Mr Franklin Price (Tracy Letts) who has disappeared somewhere in the French capital.

If Jacobs’ follow-up to 2017’s The Lovers sounds somewhat idiosyncratic, it’s because it is. DeWitt’s source material was an eccentric slice of life that was quite disconnected from the real world and his film adaptation is no different – a decadent cocktail party of a movie that feels far removed from the every day of life, at least the every day of most lives. Few can probably relate to the crisis of a seemingly infinite pool of money running thin and even the handsome Parisian apartment that Frances “compromises” for is, to many, a luxury. In that sense, The French Exit keeps its audience at arms reach; it’s often a hard film to relate to or even care about because of the aberrant circumstances it concocts for its characters. That being said, it does feel like that’s kind of the point at times and Jacobs mines a great deal of humour from watching a problem most would only dream of having unfold before our eyes – right down to the bizarre seances that bring an argumentative Frank back to bicker with Frances. It’s almost poking fun at the eccentricity of the world.

It certainly gives Pfeiffer a role to really sink her teeth into. The actress has a class to her that makes her the perfect choice for Frances and Pfeiffer is clearly having a blast in the role, tucking into extravagant costumes and toying with self-indulgent dialogue. It’s a rarity nowadays to see her in a leading role and The French Exit feels, quite often, like it exists purely to give Pfeiffer a role worthy of her screen presence. While Hedges can occasionally feel on autopilot (typecast here in a role he can probably play with his eyes shut), he has a presence that slots into this world, and alongside Pfeiffer, very neatly. It’s Letts, Imogen Poots as Malcolm’s side-cast fiancée, Isaach De Bankolé as an elusive PI, and Valerie Mahaffey’s very fluffy portrayal of Frances’ friend that all feel under-utilised here. They weave in and out of the story in their own respective roles and there’s an entertaining scene that has them all collide head-on but their inclusion is mostly minimal and wasted.

There are certainly enough shenanigans occurring to keep the film constantly moving, especially towards the second half. And it’s a handsomely shot and designed piece of work with flashes of brilliance throughout. But it can be a hard story to connect to as a result of DeWitt’s esoteric writing and a sense of grandeur that keeps audiences at bay; while Jacobs and DeWitt do lean into the farcical every so often, it’s not enough to really make us feel clued into what’s going on. The script also tends to go off on various tangents and it’s a nonsensical, convoluted hodgepodge of ideas more than something cohesive. It’s certainly amusing and a watchable Pfeiffer commands the screen with elegance, carrying the whole thing on her shoulders, but The French Exit is a little too self-indulgent and egotistical to make more of an impression.

The French Exit

Awais Irfan



A handsomely shot and designed piece of work with flashes of brilliance throughout, though can feel a little too self-indulgent and egotistical to make more of more of an impression.


For as long as I can remember, I have had a real passion for movies and for writing. I'm a superhero fanboy at heart; 'The Dark Knight' and 'Days of Future Past' are a couple of my favourites. I'm a big sci-fi fan too - 'Star Wars' has been my inspiration from the start; 'Super 8' is another personal favourite, close to my heart... I love movies. All kinds of movies. Lots of them too.


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