Culture

Film

Celebrities anonymous: ‘French Exit’

By Michael Sun
Michelle Pfeiffer is flawless in this riches-to-rags satire based on Patrick deWitt’s novel

Michelle Pfeiffer as Frances Price in French Exit. Image courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Late last month, a series of photos by German fashion photographer Juergen Teller went viral, spreading across the internet like a sneeze: rapidly at first, then disintegrating into the ether to be memed and re-memed.

Stripped of affect and strangely crisp, the images – collating the year’s boldest, brightest and most-lauded actors for W Magazine’s annual Best Performances issue – seemed designed for instant dissection. Here were Hollywood’s A-listers at their most mundane, not a new concept by any means, but pushed to its flattest extremes: George Clooney in full suburban dadcore, children’s bikes in tow; Steven Yeun looking consternated on a hilariously tiny chair; a very lanky Sacha Baron Cohen whose sheer length speaks for itself.

But there’s one portrait that’s stayed with me, despite – or maybe because of – its perfect neutrality. It’s Michelle Pfeiffer in a navy blazer and jeans, standing in a parking lot somewhere. There’s a calculated insouciance to the whole affair, as if daring us to graft our own narrative interpretations onto the photo. Is she a corporate worker halfway to a lunch meeting? A soccer mum with refined taste? With one hand in pocket and gaze indecipherable, she epitomises what might have been Teller’s intent all along: not just the anonymisation of high-profile stars, but also the cognitive dissonance of doing so – the heady, bizarre rush of seeing celebrities just like us.

Pfeiffer seems like the natural conduit for Teller’s exercise, in part because of her own increasing reticence towards fame. “I’m … kind of addicted to whomever I’m playing,” she says in the same issue of W Magazine. In a 2017 conversation for Interview: “I have this constant fear … that I’m going to be found out.” There’s a slippage between actress and character as she dissolves into her roles – no easy feat for someone whose career has spanned everything from Catwoman (Batman Returns) to a countess (The Age of Innocence) to smaller, screen-stealing supporting performances (I Am Sam, Mother!). And beneath it all: the desire to be subsumed by her films entirely, to disappear into celluloid until the boundary between fact and fiction becomes translucent, lest she reveal too much.

It’s what makes her the ideal lead in her latest film, French Exit (in cinemas March 18), a riches-to-rags satire directed by Azazel Jacobs and adapted by Patrick deWitt from his 2018 novel. If Teller depicts high-brow personalities in low-brow circumstances, then deWitt is more interested in the literal drama of it all – plonking sheltered, high-society types in dire straits and watching it play out with a wry smile.

Pfeiffer is Frances Price, a once-wealthy widow whose finances have dwindled, interrupting the hermetic privilege she shares with her son – the listless, coddled Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), affectionately (and accurately) called “Mr Mumbles” by his mother. Neither of the Prices have any solution as they’re thrown into economic disarray. “My plan was to die before the money ran out,” Frances quips to the family accountant. “But I kept – and keep – not dying.”

Frances, like Pfeiffer, can’t help but invite myriad conflicting perceptions of herself. She’s “odd”, she’s “difficult”, according to an evaluator who comes to auction off the Prices’ vast array of worldly luxuries. Others say she’s “admired”, “so cool”; stories abound among a certain echelon of New York elites regarding her instability and devastating power – as well as the exact circumstances of her husband’s death. Amid a flurry of rumours and whispers, she remains unruffled, all pink satin and pearls, fur shawls and ankle-length pleats that fold around her like foot soldiers, basking in the warm, addictive glow of attention – although one gets the sense that it’s all a façade for her truest desire: anonymity.

Before long, a plan presents itself, fortuitous enough to grant Frances both anonymity and (temporary) shelter. Off to Paris they go to stay in a friend’s apartment, mother and son and feline companion Small Frank. Pfeiffer isn’t so much Catwoman here as she is cat lady, speaking in hushed and alarmingly conversational tones to Small Frank, who we soon discover might house the spirit of Frances’ deceased husband (voiced later on by a wonderfully droll and slightly under-utilised Tracy Letts). Along the way – and indeed, within the sprawling, unruly Parisian streets – they manage to collect a sideshow of oddballs: a jaded fortune-teller (Australia’s Danielle Macdonald), an overly earnest expat (Valerie Mahaffey, hilarious), a down-on-his-luck private investigator (French actor Isaach de Bankolé), and many others.

It doesn’t matter how these relationships come to be as long as we devote full trust in French Exit’s rollercoaster ride, which crackles with the possibility that anything could – and does – happen: a séance for a cat, the discovery of a frozen dildo, the ability to leave your bike around Paris unlocked and not have it immediately stolen. Like a Wes Anderson universe, or even an Oscar Wilde one, this is a film that translates the grotesque into the merely quirky, turning the camera back onto the spectacle of wealth to reveal rich-people problems for what they truly are: trite.

Every member of French Exit’s motley crew is singularly unlikeable – moody, cloying, falsely self-effacing or just plain rude – and this is Jacobs’s and deWitt’s specialty. Their last collaboration, 2008’s Momma’s Man, featured a father who shirks his family responsibilities to regress to the adolescent bliss of his childhood home; each character here is suspended in similar stases, perhaps none so much as Malcolm, whose dependency on Frances grows more disconcerting by the second. Lucas Hedges has become something of a professional mummy’s boy, with a shopping list of credits that includes playing off against Meryl Streep (Let Them All Talk), Julia Roberts (Ben is Back), and Nicole Kidman (Boy Erased), but under Pfeiffer’s wing he relaxes into the most inept iteration of the role yet: a “child mimicking the behaviours of grown-ups all around you,” as one character says; a softboy without a cause.

That mother–son relationship is the reason Frances can’t fully commit to the desire spelled out in the film’s title: to disappear, without warning, into the night, away from good graces and mannered society. Not to say that Frances is likeable, exactly, but both her and Pfeiffer wield a kind of je ne sais quoi (excuse the French) that’s crucial to the film’s ultimate sleight of hand: conning us into feeling something close to empathy for this utterly unrelatable character.

It’s a risky balancing act, especially as watching a film centred around the frivolities of the upper strata takes on a new, garish meaning when class disparities, both in French Exit’s transatlantic settings and here in Australia, are thrown into increasingly sharper relief by the machinations (or lack thereof) of idle and ill-equipped governments. (Even the Prices’ escape across the ocean feels prescient, mirroring the flight of wealthy elites and celebrities to holiday houses and tropical vacations when the going gets tough.)

But Pfeiffer, of course, pulls it off anyway. As Frances’ behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, giving away thousands of Euros to strangers and opening her doors to a wide array of hangers-on as absolution, or mania, or perhaps neither, she actively resists logical meaning. Whether in navy blazer or fur shawl, Pfeiffer does the same, eschewing the interpretations we might project upon her in favour of a greater distance from the audience. There are no pretences that she’s just like us – and nor should there be.

“I don’t like these people,” a character screams towards the end of French Exit, having reached his breaking point at the antics of Frances and co. “They’re not normal people!” Yes, but wouldn’t it be so much worse if they were?

Michael Sun

Michael Sun is a film and music writer from Sydney whose work has appeared in Guardian Australia, ABC Arts and VICE.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Frances Price in French Exit. Image courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

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