My Old Lady

November 15, 2014
Maggie Smith in 'My Old Lady' (2014)
Maggie Smith in 'My Old Lady' (2014)

Some films betray their stage origins too easily, some employ an all-star cast to paper over the cracks in a script or a story. My Old Lady might be found guilty on both counts. As the directorial debut of well-known playwright and occasional screenwriter, Israel Horovitz, it suggests the transition from theatre to cinema can be smooth on the surface but still problematic.

At the age of 75 Horovitz has come late to the game. By adapting his own play he has set himself less of a challenge than he might have faced working with another writer’s material. He’s almost too comfortable with a plot that veers between comedy and angst-ridden drama, before the lighter tone is restored. If this sounds awkward, the narrative never departs entirely from the realms of plausibility. My Old Lady is a flawed production but a highly watchable one.

One suspects this watchability owes a huge debt to the combined talents of the three leads: Maggie Smith, Kevin Kline and Kristin Scott Thomas. Replace any of these with lesser actors and the deficiencies in the dialogue might have been exposed.

It’s the tale of a 57-year-old American in Paris. Mathias Gold (Kline), whose friends call him “Jim”, has inherited an apartment from his father. In fact no-one calls him “Jim” any more because he no longer has any friends. Mathias is one of life’s losers: a penniless, former alcoholic with a C.V.that consists of three divorces and three unpublished novels. He has used the last of his funds to get to France where he hopes to make some cash from the sale of the apartment.

To his surprise he finds the place occupied by elderly Englishwoman, Mathilde Girard (Smith). She informs him that the apartment is a viager – an arrangement by which one purchases a property for a small amount, but is then obliged to pay a stipulated sum to the occupier for the term of his or her life. Upon the death of the tenant the buyer assumes complete control.

This is a shock to Mathias, as he realises his father has not only left him a valuable property but an ongoing debt. He accepts Mathilde’s invitation to stay and take stock of the situation, but meets with hostility from the old woman’s 50-something, unmarried daughter, Chloe (Thomas).

Mathilde is 92 but in comparatively good health. She may live a long time yet, in the opinion of her doctor (Noémie Lvovsky). To raise money Mathias sells items of furniture, but as his anxieties increase he jumps off the wagon and starts drinking heavily. Catching Chloe in a liaison with a married man, he threatens to expose her if she continues to make life hard for him.

There is a big secret at the heart of this makeshift menage, although it is quickly exposed. Mathilde was the long-term mistress of Mathias’s father, Max. Even today she nurtures a roseate view of a man that Mathias saw as cold and distant. As the demons from Mathias’s childhood become more insistent events take a dismal turn. It seems that Chloe’s anger is also the result of an upbringing lacking in love. Suddenly the comedy is gone, and we are left with two miserable people in their late 50s who have never gotten over the disappointments of childhood, and a 92-year-old who can’t see she ever did anything wrong.

Mathias’s possible exit is to sell the title of the apartment to a real estate shark who wants to develop the site, but we always feel this is never going to happen. The story is really about Mathias confronting his sadness and his failures. There is no quick financial solution to a lifetime of accumulated insecurities.

When the inevitable catharsis arrives it is a little too cliched and predictable, like an underdone echo of any number of great modern dramas. It’s yet another reassertion of Philip Larkin’s much-used line: “They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad.”

Whatever credibility these scenes possess is due to the wholehearted performances of the three leads, who make us momentarily forget the unevenness of the story.

As this film is set in Paris, Horovitz takes the opportunity for a little sight-seeing, showing Mathias strolling along the banks of the Seine, or through quaint, familiar streets. Add a touch of Mozart – ‘La Ci Darem La Mano’, from Don Giovanni, no less – and cheerfulness is restored. The problem is that comedy and drama tend to see-saw in such a way that one detracts from the impact of the other.

Despite the occasional glimpse of those romantic Parisian streets there is nothing inherently cinematic about Horovitz’s approach, which is based on dialogue rather than action. Viewers won’t be walking out, but there’s a lingering feeling that Paris has been put to much better uses by a long line of French directors with a keener understanding of what film can do.

My Old Lady
Written & directed by Israel Horovitz
Starring Maggie Smith, Kevin Kline, Kristin Scott Thomas, Dominique Pinon, Noémie Lvovsky, Stéphane Freiss
UK/France/USA, rated M, 107 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 15th November, 2014.