In one of the funniest scenes in “French Exit,” Michelle Pfeiffer sharpens knives. Playing Frances Price, a high-handed Manhattan heiress who’d hoped to expire before her finances do, Pfeiffer stands alone in a dim kitchen, gliding a blade across steel. Frances’ emotionally stunted adult son, Malcolm (Lucas Hedges), flicks on a light to find her there, red wine nearby. At first it’s the echo of the knife-scraping that’s funny. But Pfeiffer, giving the most imperious performance of her 42-year movie career, harnesses the moment for more. “I just like the sound it makes,” Frances tells Malcolm. Pfeiffer closes her eyes as if listening to a Mozart opera.
Pfeiffer is one of the great comedic actors of our time, though she is rarely recognized as such. Her early-’80s rise to fame started slowly (“Grease 2,” “Scarface”) before exploding like a supernova thanks in large part to two very different comedies: 1987′s “The Witches of Eastwick” and 1988′s “Married to the Mob,” both of which maintain cultural footprints today. She wasn’t whetting knives in either — those characters don’t share Frances’ frosty remove — but the movies still manage to end where “French Exit” begins, with Pfeiffer trampling the nuisances that surround her.
In “Eastwick” and “Mob,” those nuisances were men. In “French Exit” (due out Feb. 12), they’re everything. Frances’ disdain has no limits. She’s a socialite who resents socializing. She has a tart worldview, a caustic wit and a late husband whose soul may or may not have lodged itself inside a black cat named Small Frank. Pfeiffer grants Frances a snobbish breathiness that signals privilege. This is someone to whom humility is foreign, even when an accountant informs her she has drained most of her inheritance and risks going broke. The soft smirk affixed to Pfeiffer’s face throughout the movie, which chronicles Frances and Malcolm’s escape to Paris, is as informative — and humorous — as any line of dialogue. (Patrick deWitt adapted “French Exit” from his 2018 novel of the same name, with Azazel Jacobs directing.)
Often you can tell when serious actors are trying to be funny. Not Pfeiffer. Subtlety has always been one of her virtues. She mixes in just enough exasperation to let the humor speak for itself. And in crucial moments, Pfeiffer levels Frances’ over-the-top narcissism with a delicate melancholy.
Perhaps that explains why, despite three Oscar nominations and glowing reviews from critics, she has always seemed a bit underappreciated by the broader public. Throughout the ‘90s and 2000s, Pfeiffer lacked Julia Roberts’ box-office clout, Whoopi Goldberg’s agreeable zaniness and Meryl Streep’s much-endorsed gravitas. She doesn’t wink at the audience like Robert Downey Jr. But unlike them, Pfeiffer’s magnetism never overwhelms the movies she’s in. Even when she is the most talented person on-screen (and she usually is), she still allows room for the ensemble to shine.
The roles she took during this period — as well as the many she turned down (“Pretty Woman,” “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Thelma & Louise,” etc.) — prove there is no fixed idea about what Michelle Pfeiffer can do. She appeared in deliciously dark blockbusters (“Batman Returns,” “What Lies Beneath”), mainstream crowd-pleasers (“Dangerous Minds,” “One Fine Day,” “Hairspray”), genre-curious oddities (“Wolf,” “To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday”) and sweeping romantic dramas (“The Age of Innocence” opposite Daniel Day-Lewis, “Up Close & Personal” opposite Robert Redford).
Even when she’s playing a supposed enchantress, as in 1989’s “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” arguably her richest work, she has an accessibility that defies easy assumptions. Pfeiffer doesn’t seem to know she’s a movie star, letting her undeniable glamour feel more cozy than aspirational. When she first shows up in “Baker Boys,” her character, Susie Diamond, is 90 minutes late for an audition to be the titular lounge act’s singer. The guys (played by Jeff and Beau Bridges) try to turn Susie away, lecturing her about punctuality in show business. “This is show business?” Susie taunts, Pfeiffer grimacing as she scans the dingy room and proceeds to shed her coat despite the brothers’ dismissal. Just like that, with one droll expression, Pfeiffer has won us over. (Her gum-smacking helps, too.) And yet she does so without bulldozing her co-stars or positioning herself as some sort of diva to be reckoned with — a foundation that pays off later in the film when Susie reveals her working-class vulnerability.
Pfeiffer’s vocal dexterity is on full display in “Baker Boys,” and not just when she’s singing “Makin’ Whoopee” atop a piano. She knows how to stretch out a sentence so its rhythm sounds improvisational, which is key during monologues about Susie’s life struggles that might otherwise feel overcooked.
The tempo of her line readings reached new heights when she played Catwoman in 1992’s “Batman Returns.” It’s hard to pinpoint what makes a big-screen supervillain so electric — some aren’t — but the alchemy of Pfeiffer’s performance transcends the Mae West scenery-chewing that inspires most comic-book scoundrels. Pfeiffer toys with her words as if they’re playthings. Daniel Waters’ script gave her a litter’s worth of zingers, and she finds a different inflection for each. After transforming from hapless Selina Kyle to diabolical Catwoman, she puts a sensual pause in the line “I don’t know about you, miss kitty, but I feel ... so much yummier.”
Think of the scene where she slinks through a department store, whip in hand, looking feral and unflappable. Upon encountering Batman (Michael Keaton) and The Penguin (Danny DeVito) outside, Catwoman backflips toward them, strikes a pose and gets no reaction. So Pfeiffer lowers her arms, rolls her eyes without actually rolling them and offers a flippant “meow” before the building behind her explodes on cue. It’s amusing because it conveys so much personality with such precise timing.
Male journalists — and some women, too, including New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, who once called Pfeiffer “paradisically beautiful” — were practically obligated to comment on her appearance, not too dissimilar from the ones who’d written about Marilyn Monroe, another great comedic talent, decades earlier. They somehow seemed surprised that someone so attractive could display so much intelligence. In 1988, despite telling an Interview reporter that she thinks she looks like a duck, the magazine headlined a profile of Pfeiffer “Blond Venus.”
Even though she’s a former beauty-pageant winner, Pfeiffer never let radiance become her characters’ identifying trait. As the decade waned, Pfeiffer’s films didn’t set out to reinforce or deconstruct her persona the way so many of Roberts’ or Meg Ryan’s or Winona Ryder’s did. Portraying a vexed ’60s housewife in the 1992 racial melodrama “Love Field,” Pfeiffer’s husband (Brian Kerwin) tells her she only admires President John F. Kennedy because he “looks like a movie star,” implying Pfeiffer can do nothing more than idolize such elegance. In the charming 1996 screwball rom-com “One Fine Day,” she’s an architect who’s clumsy without succumbing to the cute-but-doesn’t-know-it quirkiness that haunts the genre.
Frances in “French Exit” would be the closest Pfieffer has come to reprising the vampy turpitude of “Batman Returns” were it not for “mother!,” 2017’s polarizing psychological-thriller-cum-biblical-allegory. (She’s pretty saucy in that year’s “Murder on the Orient Express” remake, too, but the film surrounding her is best left unaddressed.) Pfeiffer had become choosier about projects in the 2010s, and the adult movies on which she built her career were being swallowed up by kiddie franchises, as evidenced by her recent appearances in “Ant-Man and the Wasp” and “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil.” Her “mother!” role was small but vital.
The Darren Aronofsky-directed film is a stealth farce, and Pfeiffer plays an interloper who unleashes her selfish impulses all over a young woman’s (Jennifer Lawrence) nice house. Again, Pfeiffer mines her physicality for laughs. She knows exactly what kind of movie she’s in, even if audiences didn’t quite grasp what kind of movie they were watching. When an earnest Lawrence says she doesn’t have the painkillers Pfeiffer has requested, Pfeiffer taunts her the way a tipsy aunt might. “Are you telling me the truth?” she coos with a “your secret’s safe with me” mien. It plays like a devilish come-on.
Believing that a movie star who obviously looks like a movie star doesn’t walk around feeling like a movie star is essential to his or her ability to play people who seem real. Pfeiffer is one of Hollywood’s best examples of this. She’s not exactly tabloid-proof — her liaison with John Malkovich during 1988’s “Dangerous Liaisons,” for example, was primo gossip fodder — but Pfeiffer was protective enough to ensure her celebrity wouldn't subsume her work. That meant she never needed low-hanging self-referential humor to be funny.
And now we get the funniest Pfeiffer to date. She must have had a hell of a good time smartassing everyone around her in “French Exit.” At 62, she's certainly earned the right. Like the characters in “The Witches of Eastwick,” “Married to the Mob,” “The Fabulous Baker Boys” and “One Fine Day,” Frances understands that modern customs tend to be defeating. Those other women weren’t ready to give up, but she is.
When Frances gets done sharpening that knife, she informs Malcolm of their bankruptcy. Pfeiffer exaggerates every syllable in the word “insolvent,” stabbing the air around her. When she accidentally hurls the knife at her son and cracks up laughing, we realize Frances is despicable. But as the movie continues, that gentle melancholy sets in. The heartache in her eyes becomes more notable, even when she’s issuing put-downs. The Price family’s disaffection grows somber, softened by Malcolm and Frances’ strange bond. Pfeiffer’s smirk turns into a smile, and suddenly Frances isn’t so inhuman after all.
That is the power of Michelle Pfeiffer. She finds humor in bleakness and bleakness in humor. She turns whatever she’s doing into a Mozart opera.
“French Exit” opens in New York and Los Angeles theaters Feb. 12 in order to qualify for this year’s Oscars. It expands nationwide April 2. A video-on-demand release date has not yet been announced.