Movie Review: The delicious despair of the idle rich as they seek a “French Exit”

“French Exit” is like a Whit Stillman adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s “The Lotus Eater,” with producer Wes Anderson dropping by the set, late in the shoot, insisting that he “Make it more TWEE.”

It’s a tale of the idle rich facing the end of that wealth, of callousness, droll wit and a breakdown in the face of loss, with no one facing that loss mature enough to process it.

“Exit” succeeds on another fine “third act” turn by Michelle Pfeiffer playing a wounded woman of wealth intent on maintaining all the imperious cruelty of class that her unfaded beauty and diminished cash reserves allow.

Yes, you try to match the tone of the review to the ambitions of the film. If this reads as pretentious, that’s what’s called for in director Azazel Jacobs (“The Lovers”) film of Patrick DeWitt’s novel.

Profligacy and co-dependency are how widowed Frances Price (Pfeiffer) gets by. We meet her as she removes her son from boarding school. Years later, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) still lives with her, still can’t face up to her — even to pass along the news that he’s engaged to prickly and prim Susan (Imogen Poots).

Oh, “to be youngish and in love-ish,” mother coos.

But her accountant has her more self-absorbed than usual. “It’s all gone.” She must “sell it all,” convert the NYC mansion, the art and jewels into cash. When her lone friend (Frances Coyne) offers use of her Paris apartment, Frances takes her payoff in Euros, stuffs it in her luggage, smuggles their black cat “Little Frank” in her purse and she and Malcolm sail for the continent.

So much for Susan, New York — where Frances has been a magnet for “odd” gossip ever since her husband’s notorious death — and life.

She muses about dying when the cash runs out. Very Somerset Maugham. It’s a good thing she doesn’t do that around Malcolm, who has been raised to be as pretty and useless as her.

Frances dines at the captain’s table on the crossing while Malcolm flirts with the no-sugarcoating-it fortune teller (Danielle Macdonald of “Patti Cakes”).

“A third of the people on this ship are in the presence of death,” she says. And she knows.

In Paris, Frances maintains her hauteur as she stacks her cash in a closet and spends like a drunken sailor, over-tipping like the madwoman she is.

A Madame Reynard (“Seinfeld vet Valerie Mahaffey) reaches out for friendship.

“I’ve no need of friends in my life, at the moment.”

But events conspire to soften Frances just a bit, and every dead husband (Tracy Letts), recent acquaintance (including Isaach De Bankolé as a French detective) and chicken comes home to roost, eventually, all in their spacious apartment in the City of Light.

“French Exit” is as dry as dry can be, an arch comedy cast in the glorious gloom of Paris in the fall. As with his brittle and theatrical dramedy “The Lovers” (co-starring Letts and Debra Winger as a bitter, long-married couple), Jacobs traffics in characters who hide their emotions behind cutting remarks.

“I’m going to miss you, Frances,” her financial advisor allows, not realizing she’s just insulted him in French.

“Won’t you all?”

The carefully-crafted put-downs, drolleries and profundities smother any chance of any one expressing anything resembling raw emotion. It’s a “simply isn’t done” sort of story and world we’re allowed to see into here.

“We allow ourselves contentment, and the heart brings us ease in good time” is all anyone here hopes for. Which is sad and wickedly observant. We wonder if Frances will have the courage to make that “exit” and if Malcolm has the wits to alter his fate and find happiness.

It won’t be to every taste, with the odd asides contrasting homelessness with genteel poverty, and its third act descent into seances seems silly, if not wholly off-key.

Pfeiffer is as grand as ever, and in every sense of the word. Hedges gives Malcolm a martini sophistication still childishly under Mother’s thumb air.

Whatever its virtues and failings, “French Exit” never loses that whiff of elegant, overdue decay and the sense that everyone around it smells it. They and we know what happens with Lotus Eaters in the end, even if they’ve kept their looks, their arrogance and their psychological scars. When the money’s gone, that’s all that remains.

MPA Rating: R for language and sexual references

Cast: Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges, Imogen Poots, Danielle Macdonald, Isaach De Bankolé, Susan Coyne, Valerie Mahaffey and Tracy Letts

Credits: Directed by Azazel Jacobs, script by Patrick DeWitt, based on his novel. A Sony Pictures Classics release.

Running time: 1:52

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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