“My Old Lady” is an unabashedly old-fashioned crowd-pleaser that adroitly mixes comedy, gravitas, star turns and musical serendipity. Shooting in Paris and making his directorial debut at age 75 is playwright and screenwriter extraordinaire Israel Horovitz.
Okay, he was actually 74 when he made the film.
You might quibble about the well-made, neatly upholstered story with its sharply engineered turning points and “reveals,” many of which you perhaps already guessed. But … the damn things works.
And provides those star turns to three truly deserving thespians, Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith and Kristin Scott Thomas, while affording French character actors Dominique Pinon, Noémie Lvovsky, Stéphane Freiss and Stéphane De Groodt solid roles in which to shine.
The story, believe or not, centers on an arcane and, outside of France, virtual unknown quirk in that country’s real-estate law called viager. This means a buyer pays a monthly fee to the seller of a property — which the seller continues to occupy — in lieu of a lump sum in exchange for ownership in said property upon the seller’s death.
It could be next week — or next century. In other words, the buyer is betting on the seller dying reasonably soon while the seller is betting on a long life.
The story’s hapless protagonist, failed novelist Mathias Gold (Kline), arrives in Paris virtually penniless but in hopes of selling his only inheritance from a long estranged now deceased wealthy father. This is an extraordinary large flat in the fashionable Marais district worth around €12 million.
Only one problem: It’s occupied by an elderly but still healthy 92-year-old Englishwoman, Mathilde Girard (Smith), who lawfully cannot be removed because her tenancy is under a viager contract taken out long ago by his father. In fact, Mathias owes her a monthly sum!
Her feisty daughter Chloé (Scott Thomas) understandably takes an instant dislike to this intruder. The intruder does strike a bargain with her mother (without consulting the daughter) to remain temporarily as a “tenant” in his own apartment —believe me, it’s large enough with upstairs and down — while he sorts things out.
Such as his entire life and who these people in his flat really are. They seem to be related to his late father’s frequent business trips to Paris, trips that robbed him and his deceased mother of familial warmth, love and happiness.
The more Mathias digs and the mother and daughter get to know him, the more everyone comes to understand the truth about past deceptions, loves and betrayals the dead have left in the hands of the living.
Expanding on his play, itself over a dozen years old, Horovitz gives audiences a nostalgic postcard Paris, at odds with the complex, multi-ethnic metropolis it is today. He also delivers an Ibsen-esque comic drama (or perhaps it’s the other way around) about the sins of one’s forbearers being visited on sons and daughters — the new wrinkle being that one of those forbearers is still very much alive.
The film has surprising vibrancy. Given its cast, perhaps not so surprising yet the mix of comedy, drama and earnest truth-telling functions well.
Mathias, a recovering alcoholic, falls off the wagon after one big reveal, which burdens the rest of the second act with in vino veritas ramblings of a drunk, who suddenly sees what he failed to see for 50-odd years.
That drags things down for a while. You do wish Horovitz had found a better way to get at the lengthy exposition that so dramatically informs the present chaos. But Kline well plays a drunk who sees more than most would and the actor positions the lampshade stuff in ripe comedy.
(Only it’s not a lampshade but a boar’s head. You need to see the movie to understand this.)
Smith for once actually gets to play older. (She’s only 79 rather than 92.) This is no camp performance but rather a genuinely touching, realistic portrayal of an aging yet sharp old lady, who once knew her way around affairs of the heart. At an age when most are in retirement communities she must confront the destruction she and others visited on the next generation.
Scott Thomas has the widest range in mood swings and revelations but moves ahead with bracing assuredness that creates a lovelorn character who is touching, damaged and sexy all at once.
“My Old Lady” feels no way like a directorial debut and in a way it isn’t. Horowitz has been around so many movie sets and theater stages that he knows how it’s done and he get it done with ease.
So settle back and let the story sweep over you no matter how calculated the turning points, music cues and just-so production and costume design.
After all, this is what movies are about.
Opens: September 12, 2014 (Cohen Media Group)
Production companies: BBC Films, Cohen Media Group, Speciality Films, Protagonist Pictures
Cast: Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, Dominique Pinon, Noémie Lvovsky, Stéphane Freiss, Stéphane De Groodt
Director/screenwriter: Israel Horovitz
Based on the play by: Israel Horovitz
Producer: David Barrot, Nitsa Benchetrit, Gary Foster, Rachael Horovitz
Executive producer: Israel Horovitz, Daniel Battsek, Raphaël Benoliel, Charles S. Cohen, Russ Krasnoff
Director of photography: Michel Amathieu
Production designer: Pierre François Limbosch
Music: Mark Orton
Costume designer: Jacqueline Bouchard
Editors: Stephanie Ahn, Jacob Craycroft
PG-13 rating, 107 minutes