Film Review – My Old Lady
My Old Lady
Israel Horovitz’s My Old Lady (2014) plays a trick on its audience. Posters and advertisements would have us believe that this is another sweet, fluffy European comedy in the same vein as Quartet (2012) or this year’s The Hundred-Foot Journey. But Horovitz (who wrote and directed, adapting his play) has different things in mind. Yes, it starts off with a premise that has all the trappings for throwaway entertainment, but then things change. The tone gets darker and deeper, revealing secrets that catches us off guard and takes us to places we weren’t expecting. This may not be the best film I’ve seen this year, but it might be the most surprising.
The set up is reminiscent of those old screwball comedies. Mathias (Kevin Kline) – who likes to go by “Jim” – inherited an apartment in Paris after the recent death of his father. Down on his luck (and cash) Mathias banks on selling the apartment for a pretty penny. What he doesn’t anticipate is that, because of a loophole in French law, Mathias has also inherited Mathilde Girard (Maggie Smith), who currently lives in the apartment. By law, Mathias cannot sell with Mathilde still there. In fact, while he is in the city, he actually has to pay rent to her!
This opening act does have twinges of zaniness running throughout. Mathias, who does his best to keep his calm during this ordeal, freely expresses his eagerness for this ninety-year-old woman to pass away so he can take advantage of his inheritance. Things get even more complicated when Mathias finds out that Madame Girard’s daughter Chloe (Kristin Scott Thomas) also lives in the apartment. Their Meet-Cute takes place in one of those great locations where characters meet: the bathroom.
The first act is rather forgettable, as we get acquainted to these people and their various clashes. A lot of butting heads and snide remarks are passed around, mostly to mild humorous effect. But as we move into the second and definitely the third acts, we come to find these characters growing on us. Horovitz’s script slowly transitions the comedic elements to the background, and brings forth developments that have strong emotional resonance – incorporating hidden pains, tragic losses, and stunning personal revelations. For those who come in expecting light romantic fare, they may walk out feeling cheated. But if one allows themselves to become invested in this story and the trajectories of Mathias, Mathilde Girard, and Chloe, they might find a richer and more rewarding experience.
There is some fine acting going on here. The financial arrangement works only as a means to have these performers in the same room. I was most engaged by their interactions, how they bounced off one another, and adjusted as the narrative tension rose and fell. Horovitz’s dialogue is full of wit, observation, and often with firm directness. Characters say what they mean and mean what they say, but they never go over the top or melodramatic.
Maggie Smith, at seventy-nine years young, shows once again why she is one of the legendary English actresses. She has such a wonderful way of delivering a cutting line, but still maintaining a quality you can’t help but love. But she isn’t just pulling the same routine here. Mathilde Girard has lived a full life, with plenty of happiness and regret bubbling inside of her. Smith dominates the scenes she’s in (doesn’t she always?), whether it’s through the force of her acting or from her mere presence. This works to her advantage. When her layers are peeled away, there’s a vulnerable place underneath we didn’t think we would see, but Smith allows us to get there.
Kevin Kline has existed in two planes as a performer. He’s always been known to gesture and exaggerate himself in roles. When it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. But when it does, he can be the best part of a film. Because Horovitz fully forms Mathias as a character, Kline’s performance syncs in almost perfectly. We understand why he is the way he is, and we can sense the amount of heartbreak he carries on his shoulders. Horovitz utilizes the best of Kline here, the comedy barely masking the problems Mathias is going through. It’s one of those rare occasions where a character is written not only as the lead, but also as the most interesting person we meet.
Kristin Scott Thomas does good work even though she is basically the third wheel. Chloe is painted with thinness, and unfortunately we only get brief glimpses into who she really is (most of her development involves her relationship with men). But she makes the most of what is given to her, showcasing her tight grip on the French language, and building some nice chemistry with Kline’s character. Where Mathias and Chloe end up draws dangerously close to falsity, but the acting is so skillful that it’s forgivable.
I walked into My Old Lady thinking it would be one thing, and walked out realizing it was something different. It is a strong, realistic film about characters coming to terms with their past. It’s funny, moving, and executed with an assured hand. Don’t let the marketing fool you – this is one of the good ones.