Emotional revelations are in store in this beautifully acted drama as an American tries to claim his inheritance of a valuable Paris flat and finds there is a sitting tenant.
An American In Paris by Alexa Daby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Enjoyable in a classy, old-fashioned way, My Old Lady is a traditionally structured comedy drama that can’t quite hide its theatrical origins. Its setting is a surprisingly capacious Paris apartment that’s seen better days but is in a now-sought-after arrondissement – and worth an absolute fortune. Though prolific playwright Israel Horovitz, directing a feature for the first time at the age of 75, has adapted his stage play very successfully by opening it out to show Paris at its most picturesque, those scenes are incidental – it is the apartment and the unravelling of relationships that inexorably take place within it that are the focus of the film.
Kevin Kline shines as Mathias Gold, a boorish American in Paris, just short of his 57th birthday, penniless and with little to his name except three failed marriages, some unpublished novels and a precariously controlled drink problem. He’s there to claim his only inheritance from his father, which he supposes will be a real estate gold mine. He expects to make a quick sale to a property developer, earn himself millions, return to New York and get his life back on track. But, once there, he discovers a big snag. The flat is inhabited by 92-year-old Mathilde (a rounded characterisation by Maggie Smith), and her waspish middle-aged daughter Chloé (tart-tongued Kristen Scott Thomas). They make him aware of the French property law en viager, which, thanks to the sale agreement Mathilde signed with his father, gives her the right to continue to live there as a sitting tenant until she dies – plus, now as the new owner, he’s also responsible for paying her a monthly fee for life. If he doesn’t, ownership will revert to her.
(You may have heard of Jeanne Calment, the French woman who died in 1997 at the age of 122 and is credited as the person with the longest recorded life span. Such longevity would usually be a cause for celebration, but not perhaps for the lawyer who had purchased her apartment in 1965, which no doubt inspired this scenario.)
Horowitz’s witty screenplay still has a rather stagey feel, though it’s beautifully acted by all concerned, and his direction, too, feels almost theatrical. My Old Lady starts as almost a sitcom, as Mathilde humours Mathias in his misguided and peremptory demands for her to leave and then, as he has no money, lets him stay in her flat. But, of course, this is just a prelude to skeletons coming out of the flat’s roomy cupboards. Mathias (who has always called himself the more-American-sounding Jim) has a growing realisation that there are French family secrets that only he is still unaware of. And, of course, in a series of confrontations Mathilde gradually reveals them to him. It will come as no surprise that there was more to her relationship to his father than a simple property sale.
The emotional dynamic between Mathias, Mathilde and Chloé changes as each revelation reveals an ingenious new twist to their relationship. It’s complicated by Mathias discovering Mathilde’s magnificent wine cellar and publicly falling off the wagon, taking stressed swigs of her vintage rouge straight from the bottle. But with the discovery of long-hidden truths as the trigger, each of them unexpectedly discovers within themselves the capacity to change. Mathilde’s mask of polite, formal superiority is stripped away and we see vulnerability and compassion, Mathias convinces lonely Chloé to see the truth of her affair with a married man, and, made whole at last by the almost family relationships he painfully forges with the two women, Matthias succumbs the spell of Paris and all it entails. Each of them in their own way comes to realisations about the mistakes of the past and the lasting effects that parents have on their children.
Just as settling back into the fragrant soft leather of a luxury limousine will predict a smooth ride, right from its first scene My Old Lady exudes the feel of a reassuringly quality production with ensemble playing by actors at the top of their game and tasteful, if sometimes touristic, settings. It’s absorbing, even if its pace is somewhat stately, and, although its resolution is in many ways telegraphed by its context, it still has the power to tug at the heartstrings in a most unexpected way.
My Old Lady is released on 21st November 2014 in the UK