Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
In the fractured release schedule of Film Year 2020, I had no idea that French Exit hadn’t already “come out”—it seemed like maybe it was around last fall (yup, New York Film Festival in October) and then again in February (some big-city bookings); plus, the critics who vote in awards groups have had it in their—our—hands since early December. I guess it’s opening elsewhere this weekend, probably in anticipation of Michelle Pfeiffer getting an Oscar nomination that didn’t happen. That the film seems to be slipping quietly in and out of distribution is partly due to pandemickery, of course, but I also blame critics who have had opportunities to see the movie for not getting on board. This thing is a treat.
It is a screwball comedy, of a sort, and the film’s tepid reception surely has something to do with nobody knowing how to receive a movie like this anymore. The people on screen are odd, stylish, larger than life; they traipse through a series of increasingly bizarre situations with a suspicious amount of sangfroid, but for all the absurdity it does seem that something is at stake. Azazel Jacobs’ film, based on a novel by Patrick DeWitt, is the kind of movie that assumes the audience will get it, and if you don’t get it, French Exit is okay with that, too.
Pfeiffer, who is splendid, plays a tart-tongued once-wealthy Upper East Side grand dame, Frances, now facing harsh financial realities. Helping her absorb these realities, or anyway accompanying her on a trip to Paris to elude them, is her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), an oddball himself, understandably. New characters pile up during the Paris sojourn, in a manner so skillful you barely notice the mechanics; in best screwball fashion, the ensemble takes over, steering the movie into beguiling variations on a theme. The group includes an American expat (Valerie Mahaffey in excellent form), a clairvoyant (Danielle Macdonald), a detective (Isaac de Bankolé), and Malcolm’s estranged fiancée (Imogen Poots), among others. We should also include Frances’s black cat, evidently inhabited by the spirit of her late husband (Tracy Letts), a reincarnation that makes sense within the film’s terms.
Jacobs’ previous film, The Lovers, was another underappreciated gem, not easily pigeonholed and thus hard to market. One thing he does in both films is create a gliding wackiness that never seems labored, but isn’t without gravity, either. That’s a rare talent, and French Exit deserves notice.
Although French Exit is not part of any Monsterverse that I know of, it has a long sequence in the middle of the ocean, as does Godzilla vs. Kong, another movie that opens this week. After so many years of seeing every GvK-scaled movie in a giant theater with a big crowd, it was disconcerting indeed to watch this one on a TV set, where its point is pretty much lost. I thought the previous Godzilla picture was pretty awful, but at least it was bigger than you.
Director Adam Wingard proved his mettle with You’re Next and The Guest, but this movie is strictly the mecha-version of a blockbuster, and extremely thin even by those standards. One can marvel at the CGI (are we still using that term?) of the creatures, and I do, but aside from the variety of the backdrops—I especially liked the battle at sea, a good idea—there is little else that really crackles here, save for the unintentional (although if I’m not mistaken, maybe a little intentional) amusement of having a classy actress like Rebecca Hall talking about King Kong.
There are kids running around, and the cinema’s current Most Valuable Player Brian Tyree Henry, who saves a batch of moments (he expresses regret at not getting to hear the rest of the villain’s interrupted climactic speech). The very first collision of Godzilla and Kong is nicely engineered to elicit a roar from the audience, which is one of the indications that the fan service is in place. Like so many movies, fan service is the entire game; if anybody had figured out how to get something interesting in between those beats, we might have had something, no matter the size.
April 2, 2021
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.