Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Israel Horovitz
Stars: Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, Dominique Pinon, Noemie Lvovsky, Stephane Freiss.
Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline) is a thrice divorced, down and out failed writer and suicidal former alcoholic whose life is a mess. A native New Yorker he arrives in Paris intending to sell the spacious apartment he has inherited from his estranged father for some much needed cash. But to his consternation he finds that the apartment is occupied by the feisty 90 year old Mathilde Girard (Maggie Smith) and her daughter Chloe (Kristin Scott Thomas) and learns that, because of a French custom known as viager, he cannot legally sell the apartment until she dies. This could have been the set up for a delicious black comedy, but My Old Lady has other ideas to explore.
Mathias makes an arrangement with Madame Girard, and agrees to pay rent while he lives in the spare room upstairs. Mathias’ eagerness to sell the apartment arouses the suspicions of the unhappy Chloe, who teaches English but is seemingly frustrated and disappointed with her lot in life. Chloe takes an instant dislike to the cynical American, especially when she learns of his dealings with a real estate developer (Stephane Freiss) who is keen to bulldoze the property and construct a luxury hotel in its stead. But as the film wears on her attitude softens and she discovers that they actually have some common ground.
Mathias soon learns that Mathilde shares some secret history with his father and that the situation is far more complicated. As family secrets and past regrets and mistakes are revealed the film moves into darker territory.
My Old Lady marks the feature film directorial debut of prolific, award winning playwright and screenwriter Israel Horovitz (Author Author, The Taste Of Sunshine, etc). Horovitz has opened up his 2002 stage play, which essentially took place in one setting, taking us out into the picturesque streets of Paris and giving us glimpses of Notre Dame cathedral and the Seine, a decision which provides some atmosphere and local colour. Production designer Pierre-Francois Limbosch has done a great job of creating the look of the cluttered apartment.
My Old Lady is essentially a three handed drama, with a few peripheral characters including a real estate agent, played with charm by Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon and Noemie Lvovsky plays a doctor. However, it is the trio of central performances that sustain the drama and interest. Smith has made her mark playing snarky elderly ladies, although her Mme Girard exercises some restraint in that area. As usual Smith is superb with her imperious manner and sharp tongue and vitality, although it’s a little unusual to see her not spitting out venomous one-liners and vituperative putdowns at will.
Kline is equally at home playing dark drama or lightweight comedy. He brings a world weary quality to his performance here as the cynical and pathetic Mathias, who is a fairly unlikeable character. He taps into some darker emotions as he reveals some personal secrets and briefly falls off the wagon. But he also provides a few comic pratfalls to lighten the mood. Thomas also shines as the sad and lonely Chloe and she has a nice presence, and she brings a welcome restraint to her performance. Kline and Thomas appeared together in My Life As A House, and they have a fine rapport and chemistry.
The film begins in quite light hearted fashion but soon turns darker in mood. There are a few tonally awkward moments, and there is one moment when the material seem to cross over into some icky territory with a hint of incest. Thankfully Horovitz resists the temptation, as there is enough gloom and miserable family secrets without crossing that line. Horowitz does neatly wrap things up, finding a nice happy ending for the three, even if it does seem a little too neatly contrived.