I can’t tell you what a balm it was to watch Michelle Pfeiffer talk to a cat.
That’s literal and figurative, as is everything in French Exit, the quirky bisous of a film that closed the New York Film Festival this week. Pfeiffer’s character both is and isn’t actually talking to a cat, just as this is and isn’t a celebration toasted to a major gala presentation of cinematic note.
Who needs to walk out of Lincoln Center into the first crisp winds of autumn when you can just watch Michelle Pfeiffer belittle a cat while reclined on the couch in your Lady Gaga concert tee that your friend pressured you to buy so you wear it to bed to make it seem worth the price?
It’s champagne problems, the lack of film-festival pomp and circumstance that elevates small, curious, and yet fantastic movies like this. What does it matter when bastions of culture like film festivals don’t exist in their purest state? When the culturati is not bouncing their hosannahs of a revelatory Michelle Pfeiffer performance off the effervescents in their post-screening bubbly?
I have to say it matters greatly to me that Pfeiffer is so good in a movie this pleasantly odd, as film-fest a movie as there comes in an age when reviewers assess cinema in an inches-by-inches window alongside a Google doc on their laptops.
And yet there is something unexpectedly, and perhaps unintentionally, profound about taking in this film, in which no one behaves the way that expectations dictate as hopelessness creeps in, against the backdrop of the most perturbing period of our collective existence. Wouldn’t we all discover the emotional center of our most significant familial relationship while burning piles of cash in a Parisian pied-à-terre, under the guise of searching for a cat?
It is with glee and gusto that I suggest Pfeiffer should be in Best Actress consideration for this elegantly bizarre performance, and it is with boundless understanding that I realize how little that matters in this chaotic nebula cloud that is the film industry at this moment.
French Exit is a film about the inevitability of life being a disappointment, and, taken as such, more fulfilling than anyone could ever expect. It’s about the fleetingness of bliss, of wealth, of connection, yet also about how robustly knotted we are to those very things.
It’s also about a search for a cat. Again, literally and figuratively.
Pfeiffer plays Frances Price, a widow whose well has run dry. “My plan was to die before the money ran out, but I kept on not dying and here I am,” she tells her accountant. For as complicated as her relationship is with her adult son, Malcom (Lucas Hedges), her instructions to him are simple: We’re moving to Paris. The cat is coming with.
Frances is an unusual one. She has a dry wit, but is coquettish, and is self-aware about both. Every statement is almost a dare, like she’s begging to be called out on being so brazen. Malcolm comes home to reveal the news of his engagement, only to find Frances in the kitchen sharpening knives in total darkness. “I just like the sound it makes.”
To fund their voyage, she sells all their material goods and settles for a boat trip to cross the Atlantic. It’s there they meet a clairvoyant (Danielle Macdonald), and the seed that plants the cinematic flower bush that eventually blooms when Michelle Pfeiffer swans into a scene and screams, “THE WITCH YOU FUCKED ON THE BOAT!”
If nothing else, French Exit is destined to live on in social media memes.
The witch that Malcom fucked on the boat is Frances’ key to summoning her dead husband, voiced by Tracy Letts, whose soul has been living in the cat that she’s been toting around.
The cat has run away, making things annoyingly existential for Frances, who’d prefer to spit blunt barbs while clutching martinis on plush French furniture. (The general Frances “mood” is an enviable one. After watching her, I pledged to myself to pour a martini, give no fucks, and talk to a cat. But I don’t like martinis or cats, so I made a glass of whiskey and made my boyfriend’s life miserable for a day.)
An eclectic gathering of characters join in the vigil as Frances attempts to locate the cat, and with it her dead husband, and with him the closure she needs. Amongst the madness, she finds a new closeness to Malcolm. In French Exit, you see, sometimes things are totems, memories, and metaphors. Sometimes they’re a passport to emotional awakening. And sometimes they’re just a cat.
There are occasions when a movie sells itself on a premise, even as you’re watching it. That’s the case with French Exit, a film in which Michelle Pfeiffer is over-it in France while waiting for someone to find her cat as well as the meaning of life. But that doesn’t account for the ways in which Pfeiffer’s performance dances across the ugly truths of mother-and-son relationships, surfacing everything that’s inarticulately complex while not speaking about it at all.
I didn’t bother to look up the proper definition of “twee,” because sometimes a thing is so inarguably the thing that you don’t need to make sure you’re accurate in its characterization. But that doesn’t make the exercise of attempting to define or understand French Exit, in all its twee-ness, any less fun of a ride.