There are some who think that Valerie Mahaffey ritzes up the joint, that she adds quirk and zest and uniqueitude. The character actress does just that to French Exit although the film is already a bit quirky and different, so Mahaffey fits right in with Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges.
The beauteous Pfeiffer portrays a widow with a waning inheritance. “All that lovely money,” she moans sweetly. Frances Price (note the surname) is described poorly in the movie’s publicity as “an aging Manhattan socialite.” She wistfully announces their financial situation to her unkempt son, Malcolm: “We are insolvent.” Malcolm, sadly, is not quite engaged, either in life or for marriage.
A friend rescues them by offering the Prices the free use of her apartment in Paris, which fits with Frances’ presentiment that she will die there. The two take off with a puddy tat, who may or may not possess the soul of the late Mr. Price (voiced by Tracy Letts). This plot device is handled with a deadpanned (French) shrug.
The principals are rounded out by Mahaffey as the woman down the hall and soon the friend/landlady (Susan Coyne), Malcolm’s left-behind fiancée (Imogen Poots) and her wanna-be fiancé. Oh, and Madeline the Medium, played by the darling of Patti Cakes, Danielle Macdonald.
So, odd cast, off-center script, and absurdist theme, which at its heart is about death. But the thing about French Exit is that it engages from the start. Maybe it’s Pfeiffer’s way, maybe Hedges’, certainly Mahaffey’s.
Patrick DeWitt based his script of disjointed sentences on his book. Azazel Jacobs, who directed the luminous The Lovers, directed French Exit with élan, embracing the weird and the mystery. His approach is appropriately supported by Dina Coughlan’s musical whimsies.
Funnily enough, French Exit is far from Sartre’s No Exit. Maybe.