In her role as a grand widow visiting Paris with her son, played by Lucas Hedges, Pfeiffer sets a tone of world-weariness that pervades Azazel Jacobs’s film—perhaps a little too much.
By Anthony Lan |
For anyone who venerates both Michelle Pfeiffer and cats, it’s been a long pause. In 1992, in “Batman Returns,” Pfeiffer played Selina Kyle, who was so lonely and so forgetful that she left messages on her own answering machine, and whose only companion was a black cat. Later, after a near-fatal fall, Selina was chewed and licked back to life by a feline mob, and transmogrified into Catwoman, whose idea of fun was to use a whip as a jump rope. The way she pronounced the word “meow”—casual, insolent, and almost bored—before blowing up a building has echoed long in the memory of all who heard it. Pfeiffer succeeded in suggesting (as the Marvel franchise has increasingly neglected to do) that a comic-book persona, far from being pasted at random onto an existing character, should answer to something latent in that character’s instincts and looks. Her cattishness was waiting to be whelped.
Now, all these years later, we have “French Exit,” in which Pfeiffer plays a tellingly torpid widow, Frances Price, who wears a lot of fur. She has a son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), with whom and for whom she exists; nothing else appears to interest her. “She’s upset in the general sense,” Malcolm says. Frances has a black cat, Small Frank, so named because, in her solemn opinion, he enshrines the spirit of Franklin (Tracy Letts), her late—and, to be honest, unlamented—husband. The plot demands that Frances and Malcolm quit their home in New York and travel, by ship, to France, where a friend has lent them an apartment in Paris. But how is Frances to smuggle the cat through customs? By drugging him and laying him softly atop a pile of cash in her handbag, as if he were a scarf.
There is an odd surrealism to that image, at once indolent and pragmatic, and it’s one of the recurring virtues of “French Exit,” which is adapted by Patrick deWitt from his own novel and directed by Azazel Jacobs. Look at Frances, for instance, summoning an apathetic waiter in a restaurant, not by calling out “Check, please” but by spraying perfume all over the small vase of flowers in front of her and setting it on fire. A century ago, in Paris, such a gesture might have been hailed as art. In one of the movie’s last—and loveliest—images, she moseys down an empty street by night, with Small Frank following behind and, to her right, a red umbrella painted on a wall.
There are other figures in this film, apart from the Prices, but they stray in and out of the action as if by accident. In New York, Malcolm has a girlfriend, Susan (Imogen Poots), to the disdain of his mother. “Oh, to be youngish and in loveish,” she remarks. At sea, having left Susan behind, Malcolm befriends Madeleine (Danielle Macdonald), a fortune-teller who—correctly—predicts the imminent demise of a passenger. Again, Frances is ready with her assessment, declaring, “Malcolm fucked a witch on the boat over.” Susan and Madeleine both show up in Paris. We also get Mme. Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey), a genteel exile with the saddest smile imaginable, plus Julius (Isaach De Bankolé), a private investigator, hired when Small Frank goes awol. At one point, everyone sleeps in the apartment, though viewers girding themselves for a bedroom farce of the old school, brimful of fizzy libidos, will be frustrated. Even the private eye wears pajamas. People are just too tired for love.
The movie starts and ends with scenes from Malcolm’s past—specifically, from a day when he was twelve or so (nicely played by Eddie Holland). Frances came to fetch him from boarding school, in a silver Rolls-Royce, and swept him off: shades of Humbert Humbert, arriving at summer camp and gathering Lolita into his clutches. Now and then, in “French Exit,” we catch a faint blush of perversity in the closeness of Frances and Malcolm. “Aren’t you her gigolo?” Madeleine asks him, when they first meet. “God, no, that’s my mother,” he hastens to reply. In narrative terms, the nearest equivalent would be Bernardo Bertolucci’s “La Luna” (1979), in which another American mother, freshly widowed, took her glum son to Europe. In mood, however, the two tales could not lie further apart, for Bertolucci’s manner was operatically Oedipal, unabashed by incest, and borne along by a full-throated performance from Jill Clayburgh in the leading role, whereas Jacobs’s film could be marked andante moderato. Deeds are done on the quiet, halfheartedly, or not at all.
Hedges, as Malcolm, is resigned to this listless air. Gazing across rooms, marooned in his thoughts, he’s one of those actors who seem quite comfortable with having little to say. That’s why we watch him so intently. Whether or not the atmosphere suits Pfeiffer, too, is open to debate. She certainly gives a master class in the weary and the withering; languor has always been her forte. But it’s best combined with a comic snap, or with sudden surges of yearning—as in “The Fabulous Baker Boys” (1989), a great American film that won’t grow old, for the simple reason that it was never young. There she played a singer who stumbled in late to an audition, breaking a heel and chewing gum; unleashed a song that knocked you slowly sideways; then popped the gum back in her mouth and said, “So?”
There was more going on in that single sequence than in the whole of “French Exit,” which steers Pfeiffer into the zone of lassitude and keeps her there, granting her more time and space to deliver (and to decorate) her lines than are required. Frances, told that she is insolvent, replies, “My plan was to die before the money ran out, but I kept and keep not dying, and”—eyes shut, a shrug of the shoulders, a shake of the head—“here I am.” To be fair, maybe she’s right to harp on the drama of that moment, because the link between money and mortality is of consuming interest. Some wealthy folk accrue and hoard as if to fortify themselves against what’s coming (a fruitless task), but Frances, with her remaining funds compressed into tidy blocks of cash, disburses them as if she could fritter herself away. Generosity is not the issue. As she leaves a hundred euros on a café table for a coffee, or offers a wad of banknotes to homeless men in the park, you begin to realize what this unhappy woman really wants, and what this loafing, wistful movie can scarcely admit. She wants to die.
The season for redheads is in full swing. Michelle Pfeiffer’s tresses, in “French Exit,” are a study in autumnal russet-gold, and Vanessa Kirby, playing a woman named Tallie, in “The World to Come,” sports a magnificent mane of flame. Just to complete the effect, her complexion, we are told, “has an underflush of rose and violet.” Mona Fastvold’s film begins in 1856, and I kept expecting to see the entire Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood racing after Tallie, waving their brushes and begging her to pose.
Tallie is one of two heroines. The other is Abigail (Katherine Waterston), and she is our guide to the story. “With little pride, and less hope, we begin the new year,” she says at the start, in voice-over; we also observe her writing in her journal. Might this patient exercise in show-and-tell not be too much of a good thing? That’s how the movie struck me at first blush, and some of Abigail’s outpourings sound like the losing entries in a school poetry competition—“My heart is like a leaf borne over a rock by rapidly moving water.” And yet, in retrospect, the purpose of her narration becomes clear: here is a godly soul, striving to bring order to experiences that are, she fears, so wild and so harsh that they will not be tamed.
We are in upstate New York, in tough country, where you can all but perish in a snowstorm. Abigail and her husband, the brooding Dyer (Casey Affleck), have already lost a young daughter to diphtheria, and any affection between them has died in the wake of grief. “My reluctance seems to have become his shame,” she says. Their habits are spartan; for her birthday, he gives her a box of raisins, a needle case, and a tin of sardines. The stage is therefore set for the arrival of Tallie, a new neighbor, who, despite being married to Finney (Christopher Abbott)—another killjoy—brings passion, color, and highly strokable knitwear. Her birthday present to Abigail is an atlas, hinting at far horizons, plus a pot of applesauce and an egg. Luxury!
The women, having become boon companions, proceed toward maximum boon. There’s a shot of Abigail, stretched out in rapture after a visit from Tallie, lying back on a table with her arms flung wide; it’s an extraordinary sight, so much so that Fastvold didn’t need to boost it with a warbling soprano on the soundtrack. But ecstasy, like other thrills, is a rare commodity in this time and place, and the principal legacy of “The World to Come”—unusually, for a costume picture—is a sense of bridled anger, at all that will never be said and done. “Tallie kept strict custody of her eyes,” Abigail reports, after the couples have dined together. Happiness is best confined to dreams and flashbacks, for the bulk of life is hard labor. When Dyer has a fever, his wife administers “an enema of molasses, warm water, and lard. Also a drop of turpentine next to his nose.” Ah, the romance of the past. ♦