Possessed June 1, 2021
On French Exit and Cruella
few years ago, the fabulously wealthy Prices might have absconded to Paris for a leisurely getaway. But in Azazael Jacobs’ French Exit, set in a present-
day where the Manhattan-based family is now fabulously broke, a trip to the City of Lights is borne of necessity. There are tax collectors to avoid; the Price matriarch, Frances (an excellent Michelle Pfeiffer), also happens to have a friend (Susan Coyne) who has an unused apartment there available to stay at, for free. Frances, who has been living off her dead husband’s inheritance since his sudden death a decade ago, doesn’t have a plan beyond moving. “My plan was to die before the money ran out, but I kept — and keep — not dying,” she says matter-of-factly. Accompanied by her grown son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) and pet cat Little Frank, Frances seems to have notions of impending death, brought on by the relocation. “Something in this city set up an alert,” she
says. She neatly stacks all her remaining cash in her new, much-tinier closet; she counts down the days until she is entirely devoid of her assets (though it might help to not give 100-euro tips every time an espresso is purchased) and will to live. Malcolm, in contrast, will spend afternoons absorbing the Parisian atmosphere on a bike, beaming — he seems a bit rejuvenated to be out of the claustrophobic, bad-energied mansion he’d been living in with Mom.
Performing with a beautifully manicured deadpan that only intermittently chips, Pfeiffer is, as many critics have noted, the uttermost reason to watch the film. She’s a vision of someone whose money has long afforded her a sometimes-austere indifference to the world who now cannot rely on that financial comfort she’s gotten used to. Pfeiffer superiorly plays the shift. (Committed to maintaining poise, or at least plainly bad at being raw, the most publicly vulnerable Frances will get — and she says it entirely with a straight face — is when she tells someone that “my life has completely fallen apart and I’m upset about it.”)
It can at times be hard to tell whether what Pfeiffer is doing — a cooled-down comic style whose closest offering to a visual gag is a withering stare — is precisely what the movie needs or what it doesn’t, though. In moments dedicated to exploring the relationship between her and Malcolm — loving, but with a hint of contention considering Frances didn’t have much interest in mothering until her husband died — it seems just right. Malcolm seems to be the only person who really gets her oddball sense of black humor, which in the film shows itself most conspicuously when Malcolm walks in on her sharpening knives not for cooking but to blow off steam, or when, pissed off at a waiter who pointedly takes his time getting the check, spritzes the table’s decorative flower with expensive perfume and then sets it aflame with her cigarette lighter. But Malcolm knows its limits when there’s a less-attuned guest around: “You’re being a dick!” Malcolm hisses when Frances rigidly deflects a host’s attempts at friendly conversation.
Yet when pitted next to other supporting characters, which continue multiplying as French Exit unfurls, one wonders if Pfeiffer should have gone a little broader, haughtier — a couple notches below Rosalind Russell in Auntie Mame
(1958), maybe. (Hedges is so persistently mellow that you’re not thinking about the movie’s correct “tone” when the similarly placid Pfeiffer is playing opposite him.) I say this because the supporting characters and plot surprises have a fundamental farcicality to them that feels at odds with the movie’s unshakeable sense of melancholy bolstered by Pfeiffer. (Apparently the movie is pretty faithful to the book on which it’s based; that was written by Patrick DeWitt, who also wrote the film’s screenplay.) There is a medium (Danielle Macdonald) Malcolm has a one-night stand with who eventually becomes a guest; a private detective Frances hires (Isaach de Bankolé) to find Small Frank after he bolts out of the apartment in as much of a huff as a cat can get in; and an eccentric, longtime admirer of Frances’ (a scene-stealing Valerie Mahaffey) who worms her way into the widow’s life with a bid for friendship.
In a kooky twist, we discover that Little Frank definitely embodies the spirit of the Price matriarch. He’s voiced by Tracy Letts, and there’s a scene where the medium helps Frances and co. contact him to learn the cat’s whereabouts — the detective needs to narrow things down. There’s also a side bit involving the engagement Malcolm breaks up in order to be with his mom; his fiancée (Imogen Poots) can’t get over it, so she shows up at the French apartment, the man she has been seeing in the interim (Daniel Di Tomasso) haplessly tagging along.
By the end of the movie, there are so many people in this chic but cramped apartment that it’s almost comical. But all the characters are so little-developed, aside from Mahaffey’s fellow lonely window (even then), that they just feel there — there isn’t any real humor to be gleaned. The movie is at its best when it’s just Frances and Malcolm braving through an uncertain next chapter together; Pfeiffer and Hedges aptly convey a complicated but tender bond. But mostly everything else in French Exit feels like clutter Frances, in a past life, might have hired someone to clean up.
Michele Pfeiffer in French Exit.
onceptually, Cruella, now on Disney Plus, is French Exit’s antithesis. The latter movie chronicled the sad loss of one woman’s loss of power; Cruella, in contrast, documents another’s gaining of it. The film
marks the third time Disney’s 1961 animated institution One Hundred and One Dalmatians — itself based on a 1956 children’s book by Dodie Smith — has been gratuitously expanded on by the studio. First with an intermittently fun but generally tepid live-action remake in 1996 (which at least housed a thunderously campy Glenn Close performance that ranks among her best); then a 2000 sequel to the 1996 film. Cruella, though, is the first to focus solely on the villainess who made those three Dalmatians-centered movies unforgettable despite their fluctuating quality.
One doesn’t watch any of these movies and think about how they’d love it if the villain at its center — a black-and-white-haired fashion-world demoness who wants nothing more than to skin puppies for the sake of a good coat — were more humanized. With her witchy laugh, catty one-liners, and vibrantly vulgar costumes (in the live-action movies, she even had sharp acrylic nails glued to her always-on gloves), Cruella was magnetic not because of her evil, necessarily, but because of how she performed it, dressed it up, made it her own. We were fascinated by how she operated; we didn’t think about how she got like this. Did we need a long-winded explainer as to why we should find sympathy for a woman who looks at a litter of puppies and thinks not how cute but rather, with a Big Bad Wolf-style grin, what nice fur they have?
Cruella, of course, was greenlighted in the first place under the assumption that a lot of people want to know the tragic backstory, which we can assume is tragic because a fundamentally good-hearted person who calls themselves “cruel devil” and lives up to the name in both their public and personal lives can’t have had a pleasant time growing up. I was resistant to the movie going into it — it’s predicated on both an objectively silly premise and a bald attempt by Disney to zhuzh one of its older institutions for fresher merchandising opportunity. Still, I found, to my surprise, this rags-to-riches, rudimentarily All About Eve (1950)-styled tale pretty consistently fun. It’s better than it needs to be, though that it exceeds creative expectations doesn’t discourage ideas of its gratuitousness.
It’s energetically (albeit not Close-level-campily) performed by Emma Stone in the title role, Emma Thompson as her icy fashion-designer nemesis (Cruella spends most of the movie trying to dethrone this imitation Miranda Priestly as international fashion’s high priestess), and supporting players Joel Fry and an especially funny Paul Walter Hauser as Cruella’s one-day henchmen Horace and Jasper. (They started off, we’ll learn, as chosen family members after she was orphaned thanks to a freak accident involving — no kidding — dalmatians.)
Director Craig Gillespie, helming with the same kinetic energy that made I, Tonya (2017) engaging, seems to be having fun behind the camera. With its sometimes-grating, one-after-the-other succession of period-appropriate, expensive-to-buy-for-anyone-else-but-not-Disney rock songs (the film is set in the 1960s and ‘70s) and montages collecting punkish, frankly stunning Cruella-helmed fashion shows, the film sometimes has the likable ostentatiousness of an ample-budgeted music video. Gillespie’s direction has enough verve to dispel notions of this movie being committee-made, like Disney’s soulless last live-action venture Mulan (2020). The filmmaker seems to be smiling every time he deploys slow motion, says yes to another needledrop, or dots another scene transition with a newspaper headline marking Cruella’s entrée into the fashion world. He doesn’t seem to notice whether these stylistic touches, like a lot of things in the movie, after a while feel like a “bit much” — this includes the indulgent, nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime — though maybe that Cruella is overdressed is fitting for an anti-heroine who sartorially is usually exactly that.
The less you think about who Cruella will become, the better. This isn’t because the lines connecting here and there seem completely disconnected, necessarily, but because the cartoonish character we’ve come to know still feels a bit discordant from the complex character Cruella
screenwriters Dana Fox and Tony McNamara are intent on writing. (Sometimes these complexities can feel contrived, awkwardly in service to the villain’s evolved form — namely why she hates dalmatians, how she developed her raucous alter ego.) You might know more about this flamboyant supervillain by the end of the movie; whether we had to, I’m not so sure of. Ignorance, sometimes, is more blissful.
French Exit: B+