‘My Old Lady’ is a surprisingly bittersweet inheritance comedy set in Paris
From the poster, you might mistake My Old Lady for some sort of twinkly, cross-cultural comedy. Stars Kevin Kline, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Maggie Smith are pictured looking arch, coy, and adorable, respectively. Despite their nationalities, the setting is obviously Paris (see prominent location of the Eiffel Tower), and the poster’s tagline suggests a plot fraught with droll complications: “He’s in the will. She’s in the way.”
In fact, the plot does revolve around an inherited Paris apartment, and, yes, said apartment does come with a well-entrenched female tenant who is not prepared to budge. But that’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg in this often wry, but largely bittersweet dramatic comedy from Israel Horovitz. A veteran playwright making his film debut adapting and directing his own stage play, Horowitz pares the story down to essentials—a three-part chamber piece on loss, regret, and the collateral damage unthinkingly wrought by one generation on the next.
Which is not to make the whole affair sound unduly morose. Far from it. True, the story does turn serious, but watching three such deft players as Kline, Smith, and Scott Thomas shift from acerbic wisecracks to molten angst and back again is its own reward in this thoughtful, often funny production.
Mathias Gold (Kline) is not your typical American in Paris. He arrives in the city with one duffel bag full of possessions and no cash, having sold off what assets he had for the trip, eager to claim the Paris apartment left to him by his deceased dad. His plan to make a quick, lucrative sale, however, is thwarted when he discovers that 90-year-old Anglo-French Madame Girard (Smith) is installed on the premises. The building was sold to his father under the viager system, a French legal agreement by which the new owner is obliged to pay a stipend for the maintenance of the previous tenant for the duration of her life before gaining full possession of the property.
Mme. Girard invites Mathias to stay in one of the many unused rooms in the apartment—provided he continues to pay her monthly “fee.” He grudgingly agrees, having nowhere else to go, raising cash for his part of the bargain by surreptitiously selling off furniture and objects he finds in the apartment to the neighborhood antiques dealer. Sharing meals and guarded conversation, they begin to sound each other out.
At 57, Mathias has led a spectacularly unhappy life—as Mme. Girard finds out by asking several probing questions. (“I’m 90—subtlety is not something that interests me,” she declares.) Neglected by the father he always found cold, and three times divorced himself, he has no family nor any particular work to devote himself to. He’s also a recovering alcoholic. (When Mathias is asked if he had a “drinking problem,” Kline responds with a perfectly-pitched, “It wasn’t a problem for me!”) Mme. Girard also proves to be a woman with a past, including an alleged post-war affair with Django Reinhardt.
Further complicating the situation is Mme. Girard’s adult daughter, Chloe (Scott Thomas), who also lives in the apartment. While loyal to her mother, Chloe also has anger and embitterment issues stemming from her own often neglected childhood. She and Mathias clash instantly—especially when he connives with a slick developer who wants to turn the property into luxury condos. But as the story plays out, and the two of them begin to view each other in a different light, the drama gears up into an acute and wistful meditation on the popular fallacy of a “discreet and considerate” extramarital affair, French-style, and its real impact on the families involved.
Horovitz opens up his story to include intriguing views of an Old-World, lived-in Paris, from charming courtyards and gardens tucked away behind imposing street doors, to a houseboat on the Seine, to the centuries-old stone gargoyle faces on the Pont Neuf. The always welcome Dominique Pinon pops up for a couple of scenes as a sympathetic neighborhood realtor. The plot thread that entangles all these people and places may not be entirely unexpected, but it’s all handled with enough sensitivity and panache to keep us engaged.
MY OLD LADY *** (out of four) With Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith, and Kristin Scott Thomas. Written and directed by Israel Horovitz. A Cohen Media Group release. Rated PG-13. 107 minutes. PHOTO: Kevin Kline and Maggie Smith share a Paris apartment in ‘My Old Lady.’