Thursday, April 22, 2021

French Exit: Guessing Game

Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Coyne in French Exit.

The Canadian novelist Patrick deWitt evades categories. I encountered his second book, The Sisters Brothers (2011), when Jacques Audiard made a beautiful movie of it three years ago; the source material, which I checked out afterwards, turned out to be beautiful, too – strange, poetic, unpredictable. It’s the story of a pair of brothers in California and Oregon at the time of the Gold Rush who are employed as hit men by the head of a syndicate; their latest target is a prospector and chemist who has invented a formula to locate gold nuggets in the water. (Their boss wants the brothers to torture him for the formula and then kill him.) But the inventor’s ingenuous personality has co-opted the tracker hired by the boss to find him, and the brothers wind up combining forces with them rather than discharging their professional obligation. It’s part fairy tale, part horror story, and it has the damnedest element of redemption embedded in it. French Exit, deWitt’s fourth (and latest) book, has nothing remotely in common with The Sisters Brothers except perhaps for its strangeness. Its heroine is Frances Price, a glamorous, self-willed widow who lives extravagantly with her unemployed mid-twenties son Malcolm in Manhattan. When her cash dwindles, she sells everything and moves them to Paris, where her best friend Joan (Susan Coyne) owns a pied à terre that’s lying unused.

The Sisters Brothers is entirely absorbing, but I gave up on French Exit after about a hundred pages because I couldn’t work out what the hell it was about. I’d hoped that the movie version, with Michelle Pfeiffer, might figure it out – and anyway I wouldn’t want to miss a Pfeiffer picture. But deWitt adapted his own novel, and the director, Azazel Jacobs, hasn’t found a way to shape the episodes so that they add up to a coherent vision. The film is baffling. When the Prices get to Paris, smuggling their cat, Small Frank, onto a transatlantic ship and through customs, they become involved in an adventure. The cat runs away and Frances hires a detective (Isaach de Bankolé) to find a fortune teller Malcolm met on the ship (Danielle Macdonald) so she can find the animal. I won’t reveal the reason except to say that it injects a supernatural element into the story. Eventually the modest apartment Frances and Malcolm are sharing is bursting with personalities – the detective, the fortune teller, another American émigré (Valerie Mahaffey) who has befriended Frances, the fiancée (Imogen Poots) Malcolm left behind in the States, her current boyfriend (Daniel di Tomasso), and Joan herself, who flies from New York after receiving a despairing letter from Frances. And they all move in.

There are occasional comic moments, but overall I’m not sure what the tone of the movie is supposed to be, or how we’re meant to respond to Frances. At first she comes across like one of those eccentric, scandalous, nose-thumbing life-embracers who used to inhabit a certain kind of novel in the mid-twentieth century: Auntie Mame, Aunt Augusta in Travels with My Aunt. But she’s not – she’s prone to depression, and even when she’s in high spirits she isn’t very pleasant. Few of the characters are, in fact, and there’s no compelling reason to spend time with them. Pfeiffer sometimes does imaginative things with her lines, but for perhaps the first time in her amazing career she gives a mannered performance. The talented Lucas Hedges tries to find ways to make something interesting out of Malcolm’s oddness but most of the time he looks utterly lost in the part. Susan Coyne, who co-wrote and co-starred in the marvelous Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows, imbues Joan with some character and emotional range, but the elegant Isaach de Bankolé is wasted and Danielle Macdonald, who gave a startling, complex performance as a rape victim in the miniseries Unbelievable, gets swallowed up in the chilliness of the narrative conception. I couldn’t make head or tail out of the characters played by Poots and di Tomasso, but my old Montreal friend Robert Higden shows up in a couple of scenes at the beginning as Frances’s financial adviser, and his wry approach to his lines made me grin. The cinematographer, Tobias Datum, lends the Paris scenes, especially the nocturnal ones, an appealing romantic glow. I’m not sure it fits the material, but since I found the material impenetrable, who knows?

However, I enthusiastically recommend The Sisters Brothers.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


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