'French Exit' Review: The Discreet Smarm Of The Bourgeoisie [NYFF]

Azazel Jacobs' previous film, The Lovers, establishes its overarching and consistent tone from the time the opening studio logo appears. A self-consciously melodramatic piece of score cues the audience to recognize Jacobs' perspective. He humorously heightens the stakes for an otherwise mundane story of aging lovers and their affairs.

His follow-up feature, an adaptation of Patrick DeWitt's novel French Exit, contains no less vibrant an expression of Jacobs' directorial stamp. Yet there's something slipperier and tougher to pin down here, largely because the droll wit never seems to coalesce around a clear point of view. The result is a satire of New York's upper crust that feels like it pulls punches, if only because it seems to have no clear direction as to where – and how – Jacobs wants them to land.

French Exit does maintain some solid footing throughout thanks to the committed performances of co-leads Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges. The pair stars as mother and son Frances and Malcolm, two bored Manhattanites blithely wallowing in their privileged ennui. Both performers commit to conveying a potent affect of gilded indifference underlining their every move, particularly in their line delivery. It's as if you can feel the wind sweeping their words away as they trail off at the end of every sentence.

The duo shares an uneasy but agreeable peace after Frances' absence for much of Malcolm's childhood, the details of which we can feel from their chilly truce before we learn the history. While their off-beat rhythms might not make much sense to us as the audience, it's clear the actors are on the same wavelength – and that makes all the difference. Their relationship takes another surprising turn when Frances realizes that she has nearly depleted the fortune of her late husband, a feat she assumed she'd die before accomplishing. With few other options, Frances makes the "sensible" move and absconds to a friend's condo in Paris with Malcolm, her cat and the remainder of the estate in cash.

Frances claims she'll continue to live lavishly until the money runs out, at which point her life will end. Jacobs deliberately makes it a little unclear if we're supposed to take her seriously or literally. It's to Pfeiffer's credit that she can keep us guessing throughout French Exit through the power of restraint in her tightly coiled performance. Pfeiffer works with the same set of icy, seductive tools she has wielded so effectively throughout her storied career. She wields these skills no less powerfully simply because she deploys them within a more tightly constrained range of motion.

The apple does not fall too far from the tree with Malcolm, a young man cagey enough not to reveal his engagement to Susan (Imogen Poots) to his mother. Fans of Lucas Hedges may recognize the tenor of his pouty performance, though Jacobs' dispositional outlook toward the character in French Exit makes the familiar feel fresh. It's remarkable to see his usual stock type in the context of a film that does not view his struggles as a cause for pity or sympathy. When Jacobs views the "sadboi" schtick through a more pathetic lens, there's fascinating friction between the way Malcolm sees himself and the way the movie sees him.

French Exit starts to get especially wobbly in its Parisian sections where the tone swings from farce to absurdism to satire to domestic drama – often within the same scene. The introduction of a menagerie of new characters from a kooky expatriate widow (a scene-stealing Valerie Mahaffey) to a cruise ship witch doctor (Danielle Macdonald) and even Frances' husband reincarnated through her cat (voiced by Tracy Letts) add color to the film, but they distract from the clarity.

Once the novelty of the new faces wears off, we're left to confront the uneven, jumbled mess of mood. The moments of brilliance are hilarious often, even magical sometimes. But they don't add up to much within the larger framework of French Exit. The film does not waste the brilliance of its two leading performances. But it doesn't expand much upon their skilled interpretations, either.

/Film rating: 6.5 out of 10