By Leah Greenblatt
October 10, 2020 at 10:00 PM EDT
Sony Pictures Classics

Her presence has still been too rare a thing over the last two decades or so to not appreciate seeing Michelle Pfeiffer on screen again. And French Exit feels like it was essentially designed to showcase her: a tiny gilded jewel box of a movie with her outsize presence nestled at the center. But there's more to admire than to love in Azazel Jacobs' arch drawing-room comedy, with its surreal styling and arch Wes Anderson-y tics — and something essential lost, maybe, in screenwriter Patrick deWitt's own adaptation of his acclaimed 2018 novel of the same name.

Pfeiffer, a swirl of Auntie Mame glamour and cigarette smoke, is Frances Price, a legendary Manhattan socialite fallen on very hard times. Her captain-of-industry husband is dead, which she had something untoward to do with, and the money is nearly all gone; her best hope lies in the kindness of friends, like the one who immediately offers the use of a large and almost insultingly lovely apartment in Paris. (May we all know such penury!)

What she hasn't lost is the unchecked loyalty of her young-adult son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), a gentle but seemingly aimless soul who can't even work up the nerve to tell his mother he's engaged, to his impatient fiancée's (Imogen Poots) ongoing chagrin. And so he goes with her to France, picking up a casual fling (Bird Box's Danielle Macdonald) along the way who also turns out to be some kind of self-proclaimed gypsy able to commune with the dead.

Speaking of the dearly departed, that's the late Mr. Price, apparently, in the body of the little black house cat (voiced by actor and playwright Tracy Letts) who comes with them everywhere — a cross-species haunting that seems to faze exactly no one, least of all his widow. There's also a new Parisian friend, the fussy, fluttering Madame Reynard (Valerie Mahaffey), and a taciturn detective-for-hire (Isaac de Bankolé) when Small Frank goes missing.

Swaddled in silks and cashmere and with an entire pumpkin-spice mood board contained in her autumn-tinted hair, Pfeiffer is largely glorious to watch; her face, when her financial advisor first breaks the bad news, passes through some 17 separate micro-expressions before she even utters another word. And Hedges, so great in everything from Manchester by the Sea to Mid90s and Lady Bird, brings a sweet, anchoring vulnerability to the role of a boy still only just getting to know the woman who gave birth to him.

But the movie, whose premiere marked the close of the New York Film Festival tonight, never quite finds its equilibrium between champagne-problems fizz and the darker threads of melancholy running through it. What's left feels like a sort of droll curiosity; a wisp of eat-the-rich fantasy and Gallic farce, lost in its own je ne sais quoi. B-

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