Back to Paris.
This looked like one for the ladies in the home: Mad Maud, Tipsy Tina, Deirdre Dreads all followed me to the TV room for what promised to be a Maggie Smith comedy of French proportions: My Old Lady. It also stars Kristin Scott Thomas and that is very all right by old Jack.
This is a film version of an old play originally written, then rewritten for the screen, then directed by Israel Horovitz. And an interesting job he’s done of it. The story glides from comedy to dark comedy to painful domestic drama and out the other end (into no-surprises land), but does so on the skills of a remarkable set of actors doing a wholly proficient job. As the film progressed, we finished off the Maud’s lady fingers and got lost in the story. So that’s good, then!
The trigger figure is Kevin Kline‘s Mathias Gold. He doesn’t like that name though, so call him Jim. His Dad is dead and – cut off from a bigger fortune with a tangible degree of ill-grace – he comes from America to Paris and the mansion his Dad owned. For this is his inheritance. Broke and in his fifties, a few marriages in and with alcoholic tendencies, he skips cheerily around the house and garden, sizing and valuing his immense good fortune. Dad was a tosser, but came good in the end.
Then he meets the old woman holed up in the place, Maggie Smith as Mathilde, and the dreams hit the floor. She has a viager: a French custom that let’s you sell your house and become a life tenant, remaining in situ while you live. And the buyer – and his inheritors – pay the tenant a monthly rent! Nice. Mathias now has a useless property, monthly debt to his tenant, and a desperate need for the 92 year-old to die. This was the moment we all eyed each other in the TV room: would you trust a buyer not to kill you? It’s stressful enough keeping the value of an inheritance from your kids…
Kevin Kline is terrific: always good, here he yips and skips until the reality of things land and he thrashes defiantly against French law. And then he meets Chloé, Mathilde’s daughter and things get domestic. For photos reveal that the young Mathilde knew Mathias’s father…. The rebellious drunk comedy, the pain that Kline conveys, is entrancing.
Kline pulls the unstable Mathias into pieces. He spies Chloé in the midst of an affair and jumps at blackmail. He talks to the family doctor to get a sense of Mathilde’s longevity. An estate agent is spendidly Gallic and understanding of viager-based pain… All this gives the heart of the film some energy as the ghosts of the past come down on the three leads through the trigger of those photos. Perhaps everyone is related, so stop kissing…
Not what we were expecting at all.
Maud, Tina and Deirdre all loved Maggie Smith. At once more relaxed and tired than in her recent films, there’s little forced snark beyond a natural reaction to Mathias and Chloé demanding the truth about her loves, her affairs, and blaming her for their loveless childhoods. For Mathilde and Mathias Senior sapped the warmth from two families… Smith retains her lovability throughout, but there’s culpability there and she knows it. Cleverly done.
Despite the nervy territory they ultimately wander, the quality of Kline and Scott Thomas is sublime. They’re balanced and effectively contrasted. He’s a mess of a jittery drunk wrecked even after death by his father. She is the dutiful, sad daughter carrying the weight of life in her eyes – a weight Mathilde put there.
Together, these cracking performances are as funny, smart, silly and pained as the story demands. If there’s a disappointment, it’s that their story doesn’t go anywhere unexpected. In fact, there’s a scene early on where Chloé meets her lover on some stairs, his wife and children in the apartment above, and the entire plot clicked into place – without a by your leave – in old Jack’s head. It’ll do the same in yours, but let it play out.
We left the TV room quite a satisfied bunch: Mad Maud firmly on Mathilde’s side and angry for her; Deirdre charmed by Paris and Kevin Kline’s puckish torture and the rather standard ending; Tina hesitating before reaching for the next bottle. And old Jack? I went off to Google life tenancies.
My Old Lady turns from funny to domestic and mature by being about middle-aged children and the sins of their parents. It is about the old, not being old. Which – in a world of films for children – means I’m flattered it exists. So give it a go.