Pitting the written word against the moving image in a battle to determine the best fiction.
Editor-in-Chief, Bandit Fiction
Patrick deWitt’s French Exit (2018) charts a short spell in the lives of Manhattan socialite Frances Price and her adult son Malcolm. As the heiress to a dwindling fortune, which she has spent the better part of a decade consuming with reckless abandon, Frances is evicted from her properties and New York existence. This forces her to begin the “third act” of her life, with Malcolm in tow. The pair relocate to Paris with their cat, Small Frank, and pick up a colourful cast of characters along the way. Driven by an insatiable need to spend, Frances soon burns through their remaining funds and imminent destitution seems all but certain, though not before a few revelations, namely that the cat is the reincarnation of his namesake, Frances’ dead husband.
Premiering in 2020 and securing limited theatrical release in 2021 – as dubious a time for cinema as there has ever been – Azazel Jacobs’ French Exit stars Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges as Frances and Malcolm Price. Written by Patrick deWitt himself, the plot remains largely unchanged from his novel, with most of the original dialogue and scenes appearing intact. Valerie Mahaffey lends support as dotty ex-pat Mme Reynard, providing Frances and Malcolm with a humorous sense of the familiar while abroad, and Danielle Macdonald’s clairvoyant Madeleine helps shape the film’s more supernatural elements.
What’s the difference?
- Opens on Malcolm and Frances leaving a party unannounced (making a French exit)
- The Parisian apartment is on the Île Saint-Louis (4th district)
- Malcolm is overweight
- The group call for a doctor after Mme Reynard bumps her head, who calls his wine merchant, who calls Julius the PI
- Frances commits suicide in the bath at the novel’s conclusion
- Opens on a flashback Frances taking Malcolm out of school for good
- The Parisian apartment is at Trousseau Square (12th district)
- Malcolm is slim
- Mme Reynard brings Julius into the group
- Frances and Small Frank disappear in Paris at the film’s conclusion
Patrick deWitt’s fourth novel is clever, fun and light, relishing its formal tone and all of the comedy that can be squeezed from two affectless protagonists, whose very dispassion provides boundless comic moments. Frances and Malcolm’s unusual history and disconcertingly close relationship fuels many of the troubles in their lives, alienating them from their other connections (including Malcolm’s fiancé, Susan), and establishes a questionable mother-son bond designed to flirt with impropriety and keep readers on their toes.
A French exit, also known as an Irish goodbye, or, for the internet generation, ghosting, is a swift departure without prior notice. Here, it shares the dual meaning of the Prices’ literal relocation to France. In a sense, this is representative of the book as a whole, presenting formal situations laced with tongue-in-cheek humour. Its extensive roster of characters bolster this tone, though the humour is often at the mercy of the those it attempts to lampoon, merely endorsing one strand of elitism over another without pause to consider the implausibility of such a large cast – including a medium, a PI, a wine merchant and several working-age New Yorkers – having nothing better to do than get drunk and have sleepovers in France.
For a book so ingrained with a sense of neatness, its narrative strands are surprisingly unkempt, often fraying at the ends and feeling like they haven’t quite woven into the pattern they promised. Characters’ motivations are often unclear, and, as the numbers swell, some feel half-formed, others half-finished. Regardless, this is where the novel finds a great deal of its most engaging humour, as a gentle comedy of manners plays out between them, each addition adding their own kooky flavour and paving the way for a series of modestly improbable scenarios – the finding of a vagrant medium by first name alone; a séance communing with the cat-bound spirit of the dead Price patriarch.
The novel gives a well-earned sense of being reality-adjacent that, regardless of its formal tone, strays closer to the fiction of Yann Martel (minus the cultural touchpoints) than Elizabeth Bowen. By ridding herself of his money, Frances attempts to extinguish her dead husband’s legacy, trying to be free on the outside from what’s eating her on the inside. But, as she discovers, she must go one step further to make this so. Frances’ true French exit is, of course, from life, imbuing the title with one further meaning that causes us to look back on all of her humorous and melodramatic allusions to death (“I want to see the Eiffel Tower, then die.”) in a different light; a strong final note to an uneven but enjoyable piece of writing.
Following his self-scripted hit The Lovers (2017), French Exit is Azazel Jacobs’ sixth film, and his second collaboration with Patrick deWitt. As the pair previously worked as director and screenwriter on 2011’s Terri, it makes sense for Jacobs to enlist deWitt when adapting the author’s novel. Nonetheless, French Exit is a good exemplar of the risks one runs when allowing an author to write a film, never mind the screenplay for his own book; the vast majority of the source material remains in place and, unfortunately, what works on the page does not always work on screen.
Cue characters galore, accompanied by a series of small, throwaway interactions, which do nothing for the film but pad the runtime. The novel’s flaws are all put on full display and, while the film reigns-in a few of the book’s sojourns – Frances sleeping with the New York-Paris cruise ship’s impotent captain, for example – it still manages to fall foul of a series of minor threads that ultimately go nowhere.
On the other side of the coin, however, the upper-class parody the book wrestles with works best on screen, lampooning the Price’s sensibilities via a drawn, pouting performance from Michelle Pfeiffer and a conversely morose (but no less great) turn from Lucas Hedges. The pair are perfectly suited to Frances and Malcolm, providing just enough pushback to bring out the best in each other’s performance. The film does stray further from the Oedipal undertones of the novel, with the mother and son duo presented slightly further apart, but this is a loss in name alone. The actors’ work and their implicit bond humanises both characters considerably, amplifying and giving purpose to their conspiratorial strangeness.
Jacobs seamlessly slots a supernatural element (the reincarnated husband-cat) into an otherwise realist narrative, lending the feature a gravitas that it would have been all the worse for without, but that is unfortunately the peak of his direction. The tone is a little too downbeat throughout, its palette a little too bleak, and its subjects are frequently given a seriousness that betrays the source material and leaves the film feeling austere and formal in the moments it should be at its most playful. More than anything, though, the directing is unadventurous; if ever there was a film that could have benefitted from the quirky auteur stylings of a Woody Allen, a Wes Anderson or a Noah Baumbach, this is it.
And the winner is…
Though the two texts are so similar as to never present a truly substantial opposition to each other, Patrick deWitt’s novel is marginally better. The book’s tendency to go off on one-note tangents works because of the kind of internal reflections and connections that the film lacks. Equally, the writing style permits far more idiosyncrasy in the characters and story than the film’s fairly flat direction and run-of-the-mill cinematography can cope with. The film may feel more complete when all is said and done, but the book’s oddball humour and tone give us more to chew on.
Next Up: Short Cuts (Raymond Carver / Robert Altman)
About the Contributor
Alisdair Hodgson is a film, poetry, entertainment and fiction writer based in Scotland. He is also Bandit Fiction’s own Editor-in-Chief. His short fiction, poetry and non-fiction can be found in a variety of magazines, journals and anthologies, and he always has something on the stove. Find him @Youthanised.