March 18, 2021
Pfeiffer plays Frances Price, an eccentric, self-obsessed Manhattan socialite only just holding onto her looks, whose funds have finally run out, 12 years after the death of her husband, Franklin. Enlightened to this fact by her bank manager, she is facing an uncertain future when a generous friend, Joan offers her and her adult son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) the use of her currently unoccupied apartment in Paris.
Pfeiffer uses an unfamiliar throaty voice to great effect, to inhabit Frances. She recalls: “I was fascinated by her, I was repelled by her, I was terrified to play her. I thought, ‘How am I going to do this?” Ultimately, her Frances is a detached, aloof and amusingly unhinged woman who, over the course of the film, gains a little awareness of the value of a life without material riches.
Frances, Malcolm and their black cat, Small Frank (who Frances believes is her husband reincarnated) travel elegantly by cruise ship together to Paris, where they establish a sort-of life, gathering new acquaintances and old confidantes together in a mismatched menagerie.
The script, by Patrick de Witt, is delightfully unexpected – almost no-one says or does what you might expect them to (he also wrote the novel from which the film was adapted).
Says Pfeiffer, who was very keen to play Frances after coming across the script: “Patrick’s writing is this interesting combination of contradictions. On the one hand, he creates these vivid, incredibly complex characters and rich dialogue. At the same time, there’s this slightly hyped reality about them and the world they live in. His writing is so smart and at the same time he’s creating characters that are weirdly relatable. I don’t know how he does it.”
Hedges agrees. “There was an idiosyncrasy—it didn’t read like a traditional script,” he says. “There were moments of craziness, moments where Patrick would turn down a different road than most writers would turn down. And that happened in pretty much every scene.”
Filmed on location in Montreal, Canada (standing in for New York) and in Paris, the film has a timeless quality, affectionately depicting a small circle of impeccably dressed, mostly privileged people for whom money has traditionally not been a concern but whose world, over the course of the film, comes to collide with a host of other characters, including a medium, a private detective, various homeless men and a lonely American woman displaced in Paris.
Indeed, one of the film’s themes is loneliness – and its universality, no matter how much money you have, and no matter whether or not you admit to feeling alone and desperate.
Hedges believes the story is particularly timely. “We’ve all sort of been levelled by this pandemic, some more than others, but I think there’s a humility with which we have to live our lives right now. And that push and pull is a parallel to the lives that Frances and Malcolm are living.”
French Exit is screening in Australia and New Zealand from 18 March.