You’re either on Azazel Jacobs’s wavelength or you’re not. If you aren’t, “French Exit” will seem lugubrious and weird, a self-conscious display of quirk. But if you are, the director’s new film, now in theaters, may reveal itself as a warm and funny-sad tale of an impossible woman exploring the possibilities of feeling. Plus it’s a big mash note to Michelle Pfeiffer, who rarely gets a part like this these days and who dines upon it like a Porterhouse steak at the 21 Club.
She plays Frances Price, a New York socialite and denizen of the most rarefied strata of Manhattan society. She seems to have been the type of legendary beauty who hasn’t had to work hard at anything; who married rich to a brute who died and left her with a son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), with whom she lives in a Park Avenue apartment that’s like a mausoleum. Frances is jaded, cool, witty, and bored. Maybe a little crazy. And broke, we learn in an early scene, her private banker giving her the news as if he were explaining exactly how money works. (She calls him “mon petit cochon,” which he takes as a compliment until an assistant tells him it means “my little pig.”)
An old friend — Susan Coyne as Joan, the sanest person in the movie — loans Frances her Paris apartment as a refuge, to which she and Malcolm repair with a dwindling stock of euros. The son, a barely formed adult who seems like a refugee from a J.D. Salinger story, leaves behind a fed-up fiancée, Susan (Imogen Poots), but woos a surly professional psychic, Madeleine (Danielle Macdonald of “Patti Cake$”), during the Atlantic crossing. Because of course Frances would go by boat.
“French Exit” allows Pfeiffer free rein to play, and her performance is glorious in a major key of scornful hauteur and a minor key of self-pity. Frances is a sort of enervated Auntie Mame, given to malicious play when the little people don’t behave. A waiter is tardy bringing the check? Fine, she’ll set the floral arrangement on fire. What keeps the character from becoming hateful is the regality with which the actress plays her, and the melancholy we glimpse behind a diva’s detachment. “I’ve upset your mother,” someone says to Malcolm, who responds, apologetically, “She’s upset in the general sense.”
Jacobs, the son of experimental film legend Ken Jacobs, makes fluky slow-motion comedies about people uncomfortable in their own skins: A grown man who can’t leave his parents’ house in “Momma’s Man” (2008), a bitter married couple who start cheating on their lovers with each other in “The Lovers” (2017). Here he lets screenwriter Patrick DeWitt adapt his own novel, gradually filling the screen as Frances’s Paris apartment starts filling up with people. A nervous little busybody, in awe of this doyenne and happy to be her friend, more or less moves in — Valerie Mahaffey is a slapstick delight in the role — and then the psychic, and then a deadpan private detective (Isaach de Bankolé), and then the fiancée and her new fiancé (Daniel di Tomasso), and eventually the place is as crowded as the stateroom in “A Night at the Opera.” Yet Frances retains her lifesaving aloofness, as if she simply breathed different oxygen than the others.
“French Exit” gets goofy at times, enough so that you’ll be charmed or throw up your hands and call it a night. A séance brings on the spirit of the dead husband — annoyed to be bothered and speaking in the voice of playwright-actor Tracy Letts — and there’s a secret about Frances’s pet cat that you’d just laugh at if I told you. So I won’t. But Jacobs’s films, while not for everybody, have a generosity that’s rare and an awareness of the infinite ways life can disappoint us while still springing surprises every day. And in Frances Price, he and his star create a heroine to remember: a prima donna stubbornly keeping her chin above water while waiting for the ship to go down.
Directed by Azazel Jacobs. Written by Patrick DeWitt, based on his book. Starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Lucas Hedges, Valerie Mahaffey. At Kendall Square, Boston Common, suburbs. R (language, sexual references).