Mathias (Kevin Kline) is a down-and-out New Yorker who travels to Paris to liquidate a huge, valuable apartment he has inherited from his estranged father. Once there, however, he discovers a refined old woman Mathilde (Maggie Smith) living in the apartment with her daughter Chloé (Kristin Scott Thomas). Mathias quickly learns that the apartment is a "viager" – an ancient French system for buying and selling apartments – and that he will not actually get possession of the apartment until Mathilde dies. While working with a Parisian real-estate dealer (Dominique Pinon), to sell his contract for the apartment, Mathias discovers that Mathilde and his father were lovers for more than 50 years.
“Take a walk by the Seine, the night will be beautiful. Only don’t, please don’t jump in. You’ll probably fail to drown yourself and end up with a dreadful cold.”
I’ve tried to live life along the lines of always being open to new experiences. You have to be. How else do you intend to meet new people, find your dream job, or in this case a nice movie that makes for solid date night entertainment? ‘My Old Lady’ is a nice, friendly comedy drama with an extremely fine cast and a pleasant feature film directorial debut for award-winning playwright and screenwriter Israel Horovitz.
Kevin Kline stars as Mathias Gold, or “Jim” as he frequently asks people to call him. Mathias is a failed writer, recovering alcoholic, has no money, is divorced, friendless, and has traveled from New York to Paris to claim the one valuable piece of his inheritance left to him by his deceased father; a large Paris apartment. In addition to the internal baggage he already carries with him, Mathias learns that the apartment comes with a pair of tenants; an old woman named Mathilde played wonderfully by the always fantastic Maggie Smith, and her daughter Chloé played by Kristin Scott Thomas.
Given the size of the property and it’s location in Paris, all Mathias has to do is sell the property and he’ll be made for life. The only problem is an ancient French custom called “Viager,” whereby if someone wants to sell their home, the buyer can technically own the property on paper, but the original owners live there and receive payments from the buyer until they die. Basically the buyer is gambling that the owner will die early and then might be able to possess the property on the cheap. It sounds like a corky fictitious setup for a comedy of errors, but apparently it is a custom that is alive and well.
With this new disheartening information and the question of why his father would enter into such a contract and for 40 years, Mathias sets about finagling a quick sale to an unscrupulous hotel developer much to the chagrin of Chloé. As he pursues the sale, the truth about the apartment, Mathilde, Chloé, and Mathias’ father begin to come to light.
This film is based on writer director Israel Horovitz’s play, and it feels like a work that has been subtly expanded from a simple one room stage production to a film that quietly wanders the streets of Paris while dealing with the heavy themes of truth, deception, and forgiveness. The film is fairly predictable, even when the more subtle, comedic nature of the film veers into heavier melodrama territory than would be expected. If I have a true critique of the film it is that if feels like these more drama heavy moments last longer than is necessary to get the point across and could easily have been combined and condensed. Thankfully it doesn’t go so dark and unforgiving that it can’t find it’s way back to a nice conclusion for characters we’re given so much time to get to know and enjoy their company.
Even if the film is a bit predictable, it offers some fantastic performances, in particular for Kevin Kline. Kline has been in his share of rough movies over the past few years, so it’s comforting to see him not only do what he does best, but in a film worthy of his talents. The ever dependable Maggie Smith is wonderful as a woman with a history who never fails to offer nuggets of wisdom masked in subtle comedic insults. It is especially nice to see Kristin Scott Thomas again; a fantastic actress who manages to wear a great deal of intensity and innocence in each scene. Also fun is Dominique Pinon who pops up here and there as a friendly realtor who offers Mathias just the right amount of sage advice.
Mention has to be given to Israel Horovitz. For a first time film director at the age of 70, I have to say, better late than never! Horovitz has written, produced, and directed over 50 plays for the stage and many have been translated and performed all over the world. To say he works well with actors is an understatement. Given the slim budget and shoot schedule, he put full trust in his actors and the film is all the better for it.
Maybe I’m being overly sentimental as Valentine’s Day draws closer and I plot and scheme what to do for my wife, but I couldn’t help but enjoy this film. Sure, I can fully admit that this movie skews for older audiences, but that isn’t to say there isn’t anything for younger couples to enjoy here. Great actors with solid material in a beautiful European location under the guidance of a skilled director - what more could you ask in a movie? Give it a shot, it might surprise you.
As a love letter to Paris, this is a very beautiful looking transfer. The majority of the film takes place in the disputed apartment, but it never fails to allow for some movement and the characters to explore the city - all to the benefit of the picture quality. Indoor colors can seem a bit drab and fail to pop off the screen, but I’d wager that’s by intent. Outdoor shots are full of life and offer very natural color saturation with impressive depth. Shadows and black levels are inky if a slight bit hazy in places leading to some minor contrast pops in places, but nothing to get overly worked up about. Detail is sharp and crystal clear - you never miss a moment of Kevin Klein’s beard stubble of the subtle detailing of the antique furniture throughout the house, or the fine fur of the many mounted animal heads scattered about the apartment.
This English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is the single audio option you have. Given that, it’s quite pleasing to the ears. Considering the nature of the film, dialogue is what fills up every scene and voices tend to hover nicely around the middle ranges. Even during the more dramatic, passionate flair ups, the mix never becomes overpowered.
For a surround track, there is seemingly very little “surround” happening, even when Mark Orton’s pleasing French inspired score fills the scenes, it largely resides in the front stereo channels. It is a fine mix all around and one that adds to the European flavor of the film.
92nd Street Y Annette Insdorf Interview with Kevin Kline and Israel Horovitz (HD 57:32) - This is a nice, detailed interview with star Kevin Kline and writer director Israel Horovitz. It’s a pleasant conversational tone in front of a live studio audience with plenty of anecdotes about the production and how the film all came together, but as the sole extra feature on the disc, it makes you wish there’d been allotted time and budget for more on-set based extras exploring the Parisian sights and locations. It’s one thing to hear about them, but to see them is much more interesting.
‘My Old Lady’ is a perfectly pleasant comedy drama that most audiences out there should enjoy. Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith, and Kristin Scott Thomas are wonderful in their roles with the skilled direction of first time director Israel Horovitz. Boasting a solid video transfer and a fine audio track, it’s definitely a movie that is worth your time to try at least once. You may find out you enjoy it more than you thought you would!