Reel Dad: ‘French Exit’ closes New York Film Festival in style

Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges star in "French Exit."

Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges star in "French Exit."

IMDb / Contributed photo

How we choose to handle the challenges we face can make us more resilient each time we absorb shocks that come our way.

In the lovely film, “French Exit,” a seemingly wealthy housewife from New York City lives a jigsaw puzzle. At one point, her husband dies, but she takes her time to tell anyone; at another, she abruptly removes her son from boarding school; later, she flees Manhattan for Paris to free herself from the confines of upper-class life, carefully traveling with a cat who may house the spirit of her late husband. Through it all, this woman creates a distinct world as she experiments with ways to process her challenges.

As a character, Frances offers a fascinating look into the defense mechanisms we create to protect our most fragile layers. She uses the pitch of her voice, the tilt of her head, the piercing of her glance to create a mask to guard her chances to reveal. Rarely does she let anyone see beyond her well-constructed façade; her son only gains entry when she permits as does her longtime friend. But newcomers should stand back. This lady has used the years to refine her ability to maintain distance.

For an actress, especially one as gifted as Michelle Pfeiffer, playing Frances offers a rare opportunity to use comedic skills she can read into any role. Always fresh and moving, Pfeiffer’s perfectly-pitched performance recalls her divine work in “The Fabulous Baker Boys” some 30 years ago. Welcoming the passage of time, the actress steps out of the typecast she once created to detail a portrayal of a woman trying to work through disappointment while sustaining the one relationship that works in her life, with her son, earnestly portrayed by Lucas Hedges.

Nutritional Value: French Exit

Content: High. This exaggerated look at what can happen when a socialite must deal with changes to her life delivers a stylized and entertaining look at survival.

Entertainment: High. Michelle Pfeiffer, in an Oscar-worthy performance, has great fun creating a woman who never denies how entertaining she can be.

Message: Medium. There may not necessarily be a moral to this exaggerated story but it’s a lot of fun.

Relevance: High. Anyone who loves movies, and Paris, and movies that explore outrageous people, will have a grand time with this stylish film.

Opportunity for Dialogue: High. For movie lovers, there will be a lot to discuss, from the film’s precise visual style to lack of any extraneous moments to the divine Ms. Pfeiffer’s work. But this is not a film for the entire family to watch.

Now, if all this sounds serious, never fear. “French Exit” is, essentially, a comedy, letting its sly sense of humor inform the drama on several levels, starting with the sense of humanity the film brings to each character. Every moment in this story exists for a reason. There are no wasted words nor should-have-been discarded sequences. What we see on the screen is there because it works. And has purpose. Each character, every conversation, all the well-connected sequences contribute to the puzzle the film and its leading character try to solve.

Director Azazel Jacobs, working from a script by Peter DeWitt, describes such an authentic yet exaggerated world that we feel transported to a Paris we rarely experience, after visiting a New York City we only remember. Especially at this moment, with the COVID-19 pandemic isolating our lives in so many ways, the freedom of people in this film to interact and explore takes us away from the masked realities we face each day, even as they carefully mask themselves.

As we watch Frances, and savor her story, “French Exit” creates a precise place that is a joy to visit.

“French Exit” is not yet rated. The film runs 1 hour, 50 minutes. Following its premiere at the New York Film Festival, it is scheduled for a theatrical release in February 2021 just before the new Oscar deadline of Feb. 28.