Film Review: My Old Lady

by Carrie Kahn on September 12, 2014

Charming Paris apartment for sale: Long-term tenant and family secrets included

Kristin Scott Thomas's Chloe and Kevin Kline's Jim talk and talk and talk and talk some more as they walk the streets of Paris.

Kristin Scott Thomas’s Chloé and Kevin Kline’s Jim talk and talk and talk and talk some more as they walk the streets of Paris.

Playwright and screenwriter Israel Horovitz makes his directorial debut with this feature film adaptation of his 2002 play of the same name, and the results are commendable, particularly since this project marks his first big-screen directorial attempt. The picture retains its theatrical pacing, with much dialogue and limited action, but both the story and the acting are compelling enough to keep you so thoroughly engrossed that you won’t even miss having an intermission.

Kevin Kline plays Mathias (Jim) Gold, a broke, misanthropic New Yorker who comes to Paris on his last dime to sell his recently claimed inheritance – his late father’s spacious and well-appointed apartment in the Marais – to whomever can offer him the most cash the most quickly. Unfortunately for Jim, he finds a very elderly woman, Madame Girard (Maggie Smith), and her daughter Chloé (Kristin Scott Thomas, always excellent) living in the apartment; Madame Girard has the right to remain there until her death under an ancient French real estate system called viager. Jim assumes he has the advantage in the situation, since Madame Girard is a nonagenarian, but, despite her advanced years, Madame is in excellent health, much to Jim’s selfish consternation.

As the history of both the apartment and Jim and Chloé’s families are revealed through conversations among the three principal characters, the back story and motivations of all concerned become clear. While the revealed drama is sometimes a bit overwrought (these characters would benefit from a good therapist), the story is always smart, emotionally layered, and completely engaging.

Jim (Kevin Kline) is not exactly overjoyed to find Madame Girard (Maggie Smith) living in his Parisian apartment.

The film boasts exceptional performances from its three main players; Scott Thomas is wonderfully soulful as a fiercely independent woman whose haughty exterior belies a softer inner core, and Kline gives one of the richest performances of his career. His Jim, in late middle age, is still carrying the scars of a troubled childhood, and Kline inhabits the confused man’s insecurities, denials, wounds, and hopes with deep sorrow and comic bitterness almost simultaneously. If you are only familiar with Kline’s comedic resume, you will be pleased with his dramatic depth here. Smith, too, playing a woman more than ten years her senior, imbues Madame Girard with just the right notes of the searing bluntness, reluctant warmth, and wistful melancholy that comes with advancing age.

The interplay between these three heavy-hitters is reason enough to recommend the film, but Paris itself is a splendid fourth character; Michel Amathieu’s cinematography captures both the city’s lived in, off-the-beaten path residential areas, as well as more stereotypical, but equally beautiful, scenes of the Seine and dusk streetscapes. You may find yourself checking for flights to Paris on your smart phone as soon as the credits roll. And, as an added bonus, Paul Simon’s lovely Peace like a River on the soundtrack perfectly captures the tone of the picture’s interior and exterior landscapes.

The film’s ending is perhaps just a bit too neatly resolved, but in a picture this charming, that’s a small quibble. Horovitz’s screenplay is rich with humor, pathos, and surprises, and his sure hand at directing his actors to bring out these elements more than compensates for his slightly imperfect ending. As the French would say, allez voir ce film.

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My Old Lady opens today at the Landmark Clay Theater in San Francisco and the Landmark Albany Twin in Albany.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll.

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