At this point in the pandemic, moviegoing has come to feel downright archaic to many, but anyone with an internet connection—and a select few with a car to take them to the drive-ins set up in Flushing Meadows Corona Park and the Brooklyn Army Terminal—can indulge the habit this Saturday with the world premiere of French Exit, the Closing Night selection of the 58th New York Film Festival.
Adapted by Patrick DeWitt from his own novel of the same name (on which he had already consulted with director Azazel Jacobs), French Exit luxuriates in the decadence and decay of an opulent Manhattan family that has brought itself to ruin over decades of neglect. This habit is in fact the quintessence of matriarch Frances Price (a brilliantly cast Michelle Pfeiffer), who made local headlines when she discovered her husband dead in their apartment and let him repose there over the weekend, lest she miss their scheduled flight to Vail. Having depleted the coffers over the next two decades, she liquidates material assets (jewelry, art, rare books) and sets off with the cash and her thirty-two-year-old, emotionally pubescent son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) for Paris.
Before the cruise ship has docked on the other side of the Atlantic, it is clear something other than years of antipathy and ennui will get between the mother-son duo: Small Frank, their black cat, has drawn undue attention to himself by the fortune-teller onboard. This hackneyed symbol of supernaturalism assumes center stage, and wry significance, in the same Parisian streets where Frances praises a life of cliché as “a story so fine and thrilling that it’s grown old in its hopeful retelling,” before adding, “People tell it. Not so many have lived it.” Perhaps with good reason, making her and Malcolm’s shamelessness delicious material for a dry comedy of manners. (The novel adds a layer of irony by carrying the subtitle “A Tragedy of Manners.”)
Like its characters, continuing to live not only in their own pasts as New York socialites but also in a bygone era (Malcolm, for instance, wears the uniform of a 19th-century poet-dandy), French Exit is an anachronism: a quirky, sophisticated fable about family of the sort that the American cinema would occasionally let loose in and around the 90s. It’s telling that, despite being directed by downtown native son Azazel Jacobs, this is a Canadian-Irish co-production. (And, in the great tradition of Upper East Side literary adaptations like Harriet the Spy and American Psycho, its Manhattan scenes were actually filmed in Canada.)
Fans of Patrick deWitt’s novel, published by Ecco in 2018, will be pleased with this sly film version, which only slightly tones down the macabre notes of the original and translates its deadpan of ellipses into a surprising dance. Though a far cry from the punk-rock minimalism with which Jacobs launched his career, traces remain (along with a tip of the hat to Jarmusch, with the casting of Isaach de Bankolé as an ersatz cat detective).