French Exit

French Exit runs on old-Hollywood whimsy & a little Michelle Pfeiffer magic

Director Azazel Jacobs spoke with us about his Montreal-shot film.

On the surface, French Exit seems at odds with contemporary tastes. Based on a novel by Patrick Dewitt, who also wrote the screenplay, the film follows the decadent downfall of Manhattan socialite Frances (Michelle Pfeiffer). After running out of money, she moves from her opulent Manhattan home to a small Parisian apartment with her adult son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) and their black cat, the reincarnation of her dead husband. “There’s maybe nothing less fashionable than to humanize rich people,” explains director Azazel Jacobs. “But this isn’t really a movie about being rich.”

Jacobs has known Patrick DeWitt for years, and this is their second screen collaboration. “I mostly knew Patrick as a bartender. I enjoyed talking music with him, and then one day, he surprised me with a manuscript that turned out to be his first book.” Their friendship grew deeper from there. They would make the film Terri together, and they got in the habit of checking in with each other on an almost daily basis. Dewitt would send him bits and pieces of French Exit and, early on, they discussed how they could one day bring it to the screen.

French Exit, shot in Montreal and Paris, adopts the rhythms and whimsy of classic Hollywood screwballs. The film has a romantic, timeless atmosphere created by its hazy low-light cinematography and rich production design. The opulent interiors exist outside of time with few hints at contemporary technology. The rich interiors that seem torn from another era feel like a way of escaping the inevitable passage of time itself. When Frances is confronted early on about losing her home and wealth, she affects surprise in the face of certainty. In her mind, she was going to die long before the money ran out. 

As Frances, Michelle Pfeiffer skirts a careful line between melancholy and ruthlessness. Frances may be out of touch and oftentimes despicable, but her charm outsizes her poshness. Her obvious contempt for authority (especially cops) makes her all the more endearing. Completely herself, she nonetheless embodies the elegance and sensuality of Marlene Dietrich. An outsized old Hollywood-era star, Pfeiffer sets the tone and alludes to the profound mysteries lingering at the peripheries of each scene. 

Pfeiffer has been vocal about her adoration of the role, promoting it heavily on social media and in the press. The moment Jacobs sat down with her, he knew no one else could play the part. He recalls seeing her on the first day of shooting when Frances picks up her son from school. Everything suddenly came together: the hair, wardrobe, the production design and the performance. “There’s Frances Price,” Jacobs says. “It was a magical transition. I know it’s not magic, but that’s what it felt like. That’s her astonishing skill level.”

Pfeiffer may be the star, but she’s surrounded by a cast of actors who readily step up to her level. As her son Malcolm, Lucas Hedges deftly plays a character who has learned to flatten his desires and impulses to suit his mother’s intensity. Hedges uses hesitations and silence to his advantage, creating extended awkward moments as he considers what he wants versus what is expected of him. Valerie Mahaffey radiates intense loneliness in a supporting role in a way that would be tragic if it were not so funny. These two performances seem to understand the heightened performance reality at stake and deftly capture the film’s dark, whimsical tone.

Working primarily in Montreal, he has only great things to say about the local cast and crew. Montreal’s streets became New York, and some choice interiors became posh Parisian apartments. Far from the first time Montreal has stepped up to play another city, French Exit utilizes the otherness to create a heightened sense of fantasy. As Frances lives in her reality, it would make sense that her New York might be uncanny. The streets and hallways she navigates are her own. 

At its heart, the magic of French Exit comes together in this deliberate unfamiliarity. “That’s the thing about the fantasy of old money. How do these people fit in this world?” Jacobs goes on to wonder. “How does it isolate you?”

The beauty of the film, though, is that it’s not a rich-girl pity party. It’s a film that fundamentally feels as though it’s about the convergence of loneliness and time. Frances and her world are a dying breed, but she’s holding on for dear life. With just enough charm and irony, she invites us into a universe that might otherwise be alienating and infuriating. She’s an unexpected and perhaps unwilling host, but it’s a pleasure nonetheless. ■

French Exit opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, April 2. Watch the trailer here:

Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges and Valerie Mahaffey star in French Exit by Azazel Jacobs

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