The French exit, the Irish goodbye, the “ghost”: contemporary English usage offers no shortage of euphemisms to describe the act of leaving a social entanglement without announcing your departure. The abundance of terminology corresponds with the phenomenon’s ubiquity and its myriad uses. It’s a useful tool for the guest who’s reluctant to cause a scene, who’s too tired or indifferent to enact the emotional choreography of a drawn-out farewell; the guest who hopes her absence will be felt without being announced; the guest who hopes her absence won’t be noticed at all; the guest who’s simply bad at goodbyes.
Of course, euphemistic descriptors tend to lean heavily on cultural connotation, and the title of Azazel Jacob’s latest directorial effort (adapted by Patrick DeWitt from his own novel) knowingly evokes glamour, ennui, Gallic sophistication, and a flair for understated drama. In French Exit, the term simultaneously refers to a vaguely ignominious departure from America, from the upper echelons of a high-society milieu, and from a well-funded patrician lifestyle. When we meet Frances Price (Michelle Pfeiffer), she’s a faded New York socialite whose late husband’s once-considerable estate (“all that lovely money”) has at last run dry. Stray details from her life’s story are offhandedly confided over the course of the film, conjuring a familiar female archetype: born beautiful and comfortable, highly educated but never called upon to work, married off young to a rich man with whom she had little in common, and whose death she wasn’t quite sure how to mourn. Frances’s lawyer urges her to sell her remaining worldly luxuries (“the jewelry, the art, the books”) and live frugally off the proceeds; when a concerned friend invites her to move into a spare apartment in Paris, the “odd, difficult” Frances rounds up her rudderless but dutiful son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) and embarks on the transcontinental passage with stacks of 100-euro bills and an undisclosed plan to kill herself once the money runs out.
The rest of French Exit engages a distinctly French mode of depressive farce (the cinematic lineage of which can be traced from The Rules of the Game  through Amélie  and beyond) to chronicle the unfolding of Frances and Malcolm’s life in Paris. Notably, the pair are accompanied by their cat, Small Frank, believed to carry the soul and consciousness of Malcolm’s father. It’s treated as mildly novel but ultimately unremarkable that Frances is so readily able to recognize her late husband’s spiritual presence in the cat, and her intuition is vindicated when she and Malcolm commune with the very human voice of Franklin Price (Tracy Letts) in the midst of an arrestingly off-kilter seance. Rounding out the idiosyncratic cast of characters are an impressively placid private detective (Isaach de Bankolé), a jaded millennial psychic (Danielle Macdonald), and Madame Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey), a sweet, lonely widow who has admired Frances since her youthful reign over New York’s most rarefied social circles.
Some critics have recoiled at the film’s prickliness or dismissively described it as “quirky,” but Jacobs’s sly stylistic flourishes complement DeWitt’s arch, mannered dialogue to render the novel’s hyper-literary array of characters and dramatic episodes vividly alive. In the hands of a less sensitive cast, the result could have been cartoonish and alienating. Here, instead, Pfeiffer, Hedges, and the rest thread each overwrought word with such playful emotional nuance that even the least plausible monologues feel startlingly raw, punctuated as they are with pithy, dryly insightful exchanges (“This is a love poets aspire to.” “Are you a poet?” “I work in finance”). Jacobs has a keen sense of timing, and a strong instinct for encouraging and documenting the offbeat conversational rapport that develops among an ensemble; his winkingly efficient visual rhymes recall Wes Anderson (a tableau of Frances lounging on a ship’s deck with a book, paired with one of Malcolm lying in his cabin with an ice bucket to barf in), but the designedness is subtler and less regimented, and the comic tone closer to Lubitsch.
Pfeiffer deeply grasps Frances’s psychology, and fluently navigates the paradoxes that define her, giving equal weight to the existential terror of her vulnerability and the defensive rhetorical power of her sarcasm, a cutting world-weariness that she wields like a knife. Her aging but still resplendent beauty is at once a painful reminder of past triumphs and her last remaining consolation. She despairs that the loss of her wealth is tantamount to death, since the concept of “making a living” is evidently either uncomfortable or incomprehensible to her, and self-indulgently romanticizes the simple needs of a homeless man she encounters in Central Park (cigarettes and wine). With a glance or a brush of the hand Pfeiffer telegraphs the sadness in each wry remark, infusing Frances with the vaguely tragic wariness of an Edith Wharton heroine.
Hedges, meanwhile, plays Malcolm as something of a cipher. (Who but Hedges could so convincingly sell this exchange with his long-suffering fiancée, Susan [Imogen Poots]?: “Would you describe yourself as a coward?” “No.” “How would you describe yourself?” “I don’t know that I’d bother in the first place.”) We learn that he grew up in boarding schools, and only began to get to know his mother as an adolescent. We don’t witness much demonstrative affection in their relationship, yet he is entirely deferential to Frances’s whims and preferences, seemingly acquiescing more out of passivity and inertia than as an expression of active loyalty. He appears to be in thrall to her, vaguely frightened of what will happen if she’s left to take care of herself. A central psychoanalytic mystery of the film is why, exactly, Malcolm persists in tending to his mother’s stark neediness, despite the obvious strain it puts on his already fraught relationship with Susan. She’s bewildered and exasperated with Malcolm for hesitating to tell Frances about their engagement, and understandably hurt by his matter-of-fact, apparently uncomplicated decision to drop everything to follow his mother to Paris.
Susan’s futile efforts to elicit an explanation of Malcolm’s thought process, coupled with Poots’s wearily empathetic performance, position her as an audience proxy, a voice of clear-eyed youthful reason in a sea of eccentricity and mysterious psychic undercurrents, trying to understand his passivity. (Susan’s new boyfriend likewise gives voice to a certain kind of imagined viewer: “I don’t like these people. They’re not normal people.”) Yet for all its peculiarity, the makeshift family unit assembled in this pied-à-terre could never be said to be unrecognizable, or uninteresting. In the film’s final act, Frances muses: “My life is riddled by clichés. But do you know what a cliché is? It’s a story so fine and thrilling that it’s grown old in its hopeful retelling. People tell it, not so many live it.”