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My Old Lady

D: Israel Horovitz / 107m

Cast: Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, Dominique Pinon, Stéphane Freiss, Noémie Lvovsky, Stéphane De Groodt, Sophie Touitou

When impoverished American Matthias Gold (Kline) inherits a Paris apartment from his late father, he has no idea that his plan to sell the apartment for several million euros will be stalled by the presence of Mathilde Girard (Smith), the woman who has lived there as a kind of sitting tenant ever since the death of her husband forty years before (she’s now ninety-two). As well, Matthias discovers that the terms of his father’s arrangement with Madame Girard means that he has to pay her a monthly stipend. In France, this arrangement is known as viager, and it also means that the apartment, which consists of three floors and a large garden, can’t be sold until Madame Girard’s death.

Luckily, Matthias has a back-up plan, in the form of François Roy (Freiss), a Paris businessman who is interested in buying the contract for the apartment, and despite Madame Girard’s presence in the property. This means little in real terms for Madame Girard, whose life will be unaffected if the contract is bought by someone else. However, it means a great deal to her daughter, Chloé (Thomas), who also lives in the apartment, and would be left homeless in the event of her mother’s death (what Matthias doesn’t know is that Roy’s plan is to demolish the apartment building and build a hotel in its place).

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Matthias and Chloé are at odds over the situation, and find themselves clashing. Curious about her, Matthias follows her one day and discovers that she is having an affair with a married man, Philippe (De Groodt). Having been “persuaded” by Madame Girard to pay rent while he stays there, Matthias uses this information to blackmail Chloé into letting him stay rent-free. In the meantime, he’s been selling off items of furniture to local antique dealers in order to have some money. While searching the apartment for more items to sell, he finds a number of photographs that point to a much closer relationship between his father and Madame Girard than he ever suspected. In turn, this leads to further revelations that neither he, Madame Girard, or Chloé were ever aware of, and which have a profound effect on them all.

From the poster above (and from the trailer below), you’d be forgiven for thinking that My Old Lady is likely to be a bit of a genial romp, a comedy with heart that features a sprightly Maggie Smith running rings round a clueless Kevin Kline as she outmanoeuvres him time and again as he tries to oust her from the apartment. And initially, that’s exactly the kind of movie it is (except that Smith isn’t as sprightly as you might expect). Kline does a good job of looking exasperated and confused, Smith is polite and excessively punctilious, and the scene is set for a (one-sided) battle of wills, with humour aplenty and generous dollops of heart-warming sentiment served up throughout the movie as Matthias and Madame Girard learn to respect and like each other.

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But writer/director Horovitz – adapting his stage play That Old Lady for the screen – has other ideas. It soon becomes apparent that Horovitz has a different tale to tell, one that includes humour as pathos only, and which at times, makes for a darker, more gruelling story than is first apparent. As Matthias begins to unravel the truths behind his parents’ marriage, and where Madame Girard and Chloé fit into it all, Horovitz takes the viewer on a journey into one man’s personal despair, and the way in which he finds redemption. There’s a long stretch where Matthias unburdens himself of a terrible event that happened when he was younger. It’s a scene that causes the viewer to hold their breath as Kline delivers a masterclass in dramatic acting, highlighting the depth of Matthias’s pain and the emotional devastation it’s caused him, and the effect it continues to have on him.

At first, this scene seems out of place, especially in terms of the movie’s tone, and subsequent scenes lack the power it contains (and some viewers may find the rest of the movie a bit of a letdown in terms of a lack of similar intensity), but it’s a cathartic moment, one that allows the viewer to understand both Matthias’s often crass, uncaring manner, and one that allows the viewer to connect with a character who seems motivated entirely by his own selfish needs. Chloé, who is present during the scene, has her own burdens, and this allows her to purge her resentments as well, as it becomes clear that she’s always known the truth about her mother and Matthias’ father. Both actors are superb, imbuing their characters with a common, tragic sadness that has hampered both their lives for so long, and to such terrible effect.

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Rather than being an out and out comedy, My Old Lady is a compelling drama that focuses on serious topics such as emotional dysfunction, parental neglect, suicide, social occlusion, and inappropriate self-respect, and deals with each one without a trace of flippancy. But it is funny in places, and there are some good visual gags thrown in at odd moments to leaven the drama, as well as some very good reparteé between Kline and Smith that shows neither of them has lost their sense of comic timing.

Clearly at ease with the material, Horovitz blends the comedy with the drama to refreshingly good effect, and takes the viewer on a journey that in meteorological terms, starts off bright and sunny, becomes increasingly cloudy, then very stormy before rays of sunshine start to break through the dark clouds and disperse them. As mentioned briefly before, the last twenty minutes cuts corners in its attempts to wind up the narrative, and some viewers may feel that scenes have been excised in an attempt to bring the movie down to its current running time. But this is a minor disappointment in comparison to what’s gone before, and Horovitz and his trio of outstanding lead performers should be congratulating themselves on a movie that doesn’t shy away from dealing with some very serious matters indeed.

Rating: 8/10 – an intelligent, unexpectedly gripping movie that may put off some viewers (though that would be the wrong reaction to it), My Old Lady is a must-see for fans of serious drama; Kline and Thomas are superb, and Horovitz uses the Paris settings to add a melancholy tone that aids the movie tremendously.

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