Movies come from all over the globe to play the New York Film Festival every year. 2020’s mostly virtual edition, which ends tonight, may have severely cut down on the number of actual people heading to the Big Apple for the fest, but it did nothing to stem the tide of international cinema flowing into the lineup, which this year included films from six continents—a sampler of what the medium looks like the world over right now. So it’s appropriate that NYFF58 is ending this evening with a movie about leaving New York, a farewell to the city that might function as a proper punctuation on the festival itself. It’s such a perfect selection for Closing Night that maybe it doesn’t matter so much that French Exit (Grade: C), from NYC’s own Azazel Jacobs, is more whimper than bang: an arch and labored comedy that left yours truly daydreaming of ending the festival a few minutes earlier with his own abrupt escape.
The film’s biggest hook, and indeed its most recommendable quality, is the handing of Michelle Pfeiffer her juiciest lead role in ages. She stars as Frances Price, a wealthy New York widow whose husband—strongly implied to be a Bernie Madoff-style financial huckster—croaked a few years earlier. Having blown through the family fortune, Frances faces total insolvency, but that hasn’t diminished by an ounce her harsh wit and droll indifference. Pfeiffer has made many a meal of disdainful dialogue (she was a recent, contemptuous hoot in Mother!), and French Exit at best operates as a platform for her to cut through everyone in sight with a pithy remark, withering look, or bored drag on a perpetually lit cigarette. In the opening half-hour or so alone, Frances starts a fire in a restaurant just to secure the check from a haughty, feet-dragging waiter and outrageously chortles out an amused “That’s a new one” when a fawning admirer tells her that her own husband choked to death.
With nowhere else to go, Frances flees to Paris to live in the empty flat of a friend, dragging along loyal twentysomething son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges, giving his most intentionally flat performance) and their pet cat. Once there, the two find themselves quickly surrounded by a growing ensemble of eccentrics: an endlessly accommodating fellow widow (Valerie Mahaffey), a deadpan psychic (Danielle Macdonald), a good-natured private detective (Isaach De Bankolé), Malcolm’s jilted fiancé (Imogen Poots), and a peeved competitor (Daniel di Tomasso) for her affections—all stuffed, eventually, into the same French apartment. None of these oddballs are half as interesting or fun as Frances; they’re also not what you could call foils, exactly, given how infrequently their behavior and patter resembles the recognizably human variety.
French Exit is based on a novel by Patrick DeWitt (The Sisters Brothers), and though the author himself handled adaptation duties, he’s created the impression of a story whose farcical qualities, melancholy beats, and offhand absurdism—one review of the book called it a “tragedy of errors”—probably blended more organically and pleasurably on the page. (Sample offbeat element that falls flat in execution: a séance with the deceased Mr. Price, whose consciousness may or may not be trapped in the body of their cat, voiced by Tracey Letts.) DeWitt’s zingers hit and miss, some sticking in the actors’ mouth as proof that not every bon mot is as easily delivered as it is read. But then, maybe Jacobs is the mismatch. He seems uncertain at times how to navigate the vaguely Wes Andersonian pivots from quirk to sincerity. Truthfully, the film’s artificial, stylized remove—what might be called his current style, a kind of half-ironic, half-romantic wooziness—seems an odd landing point for the scrappy DIY filmmaker behind Momma’s Man and the genuinely touching and hilarious Terri, which DeWitt also wrote and which was so human it hurt. Comedy, of course, is subjective; such nuttiness in a highbrow register might delight plenty of moviegoers. This critic, though, often felt as exasperated as Malcolm’s straight-laced romantic rival, at least when Pfeiffer wasn’t exquisitely tilting her eyes back into her head.
It was, for my money, a deflating finish—especially given how the festival commenced, an eternal three weeks ago, with the dance-party jubilance of Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock. New York is not a competitive film festival (its let’s-just-enjoy-some-great-movies vibe is part of the appeal), but if it could be said that anyone “won” this year’s edition, it was almost surely Steve McQueen. The British filmmaker brought three of the six episodes he wrote and directed under the banner of Small Axe, his BBC anthology mini-series spanning several 20th-century decades in the West Indian neighborhoods of London. Whether these feature-length, only thematically linked installments qualify as television or movies will be a matter of some debate over the next few weeks. (Expect to see them pop up on plenty of best-films-of-2020 lists—though not ours, as the A.V. Club TV section is likely tackling official reviews of the series, which premieres on BBC in November and on Amazon Prime sometime thereafter.) However you classify them, though, it seems indisputable that McQueen has orchestrated one of the year’s most ambitious dramatic projects.
If Lovers Rock presented reggae house parties in the 1980s as an important and almost utopian sanctuary for Black Londoners, the longer, heftier prestige drama Mangrove (Grade: B) depicts the white authorities’ hostility to that very kind of space. The title refers to the establishment of one Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), a Trinidad immigrant whose café was something of a community hub in the Notting Hill of the late 1960s, which of course made it a target of white police officers looking to harass the predominately Black cliental and intimidate Crichlow into abandoning his business. Mangrove chronicles how push came to shove, as the neighborhood organized a march to publically object to the constant, unfounded raids—a peaceful demonstration that ended, as anyone watching today might guess, in police violence. Naturally, several of the protesters (played in the film by the likes of Letitia Wright, Malachi Kirby, and Rochenda Sandall, among others) were officially blamed.
They were called The Mangrove 9, and that’s just one reason it’s difficult not to compare McQueen’s film to Aaron Sorkin’s new Trial Of The Chicago 7, which depicts the sham proceedings brought against a different group of activists across the ocean about a year later. In almost every respect, including thoughtfulness and righteous fervor, this is the better movie, even as it suffers from a few of the same issues endemic to courtroom dramas, like an overreliance on speechifying (“At this moment in history, you could inspire a revolution”) and some of the hoarier clichés of the genre (like one of the accused suddenly thinking of a new line of defense, responding to his eureka moment with a hushed “I have it.”). Yet if Mangrove is contrived in the way lots of legal procedurals are, it also tackles its conventions with a conviction that makes you believe in them all over again. Maybe it’s that McQueen identifies another conflict beyond the push back against the man—a genuine ongoing dispute about whether the priority should be mounting the best defense or using this very public trial as a way to have a larger discussion about the racism of the police and court system. Or maybe it’s just that the director of Widows knows how to make the big moments land, often with the force of his craft. See, for example, a shot of Wright bellowing into a megaphone, her silhouette iconically, rousingly reflected in a rain-streaked windshield.
The individual episodes of Small Axe will reportedly air in a different order than they played the festival—surprising, given how cleanly and meaningfully they’ve flowed into each other at NYFF. Still, whatever the sequencing, it’s clear that McQueen sees each as one part of a larger conversation. He comes at the police brutality so central to Mangrove from another angle in Red, White And Blue (Grade: B+), a comparably contained recounting of how Leroy Logan, future superintendent of London’s Metropolitan Police, joined the force in the 1980s, committed to changing the organization from the inside and rebuilding trust between a fed-up Black community and those betraying their oath to serve and protect it. Like Mangrove, this episode has an American shadow: It almost plays like a rejoinder to BlacKkKlansman, responding to that film’s criticized, more uplifting dramatization with the sobering realities of what Logan faced as a Black officer trying to operate within a racist law-enforcement agency.
On the one hand, the material s so strong you can’t help but wonder if McQueen should have stretched it out a little further. (At just 80 minutes, the film is every bit as compact as Lovers Rock, but with subject matter that could easily have been expanded upon without going the full decades-spanning biopic route). On the other hand, there’s a damning clarity to the economical way McQueen chips away at the young Logan’s idealism—he’s made an unsentimental drama about the arduous, uphill business of institutional reform that wastes no scenes. It helps, of course, that he has John Boyega in the lead, simmering with a civic sense of duty that’s meticulously polluted by Logan’s deplorable colleagues. Red, White And Blue is stark and straightforward, further proof that McQueen has distinguished each entry in his bold foray into small-screen storytelling. And it ends on a note of such sobering uncertainty that I couldn’t help but wish the festival had programmed it as Closing Night instead, for the symmetry but also in acknowledgement of the ellipses we’re all living through now.