My Old Lady
It is hard to tell when My Old Lady is at its best. The first act of the film skips along at a very pleasant pace as Mathias Gold (played by Kevin Kline) leads the line with subtle humour and great comic timing. His minor conflicts with Mathilde (Maggie Smith) and Chloé (Kristen Scott Thomas) create a light-hearted opening that befits the shots of Paris on a sunny day. This early tempo, however, is slowly replaced by a darker, more theatrical tone and pace, which really makes the most of such a talented cast. It is a film of two halves and thus feels slightly disjointed because of that, but overall, the experience is a pleasant one.
Mathias is an alcoholic whose estranged dad has recently died. He has been left a gold watch, a couple of French novels and an apartment in Paris. He is broke and plans to use his lost few dollars on a plane ticket to Paris where he intends on selling his recently acquired apartment and well… he doesn’t know what will come next. When he gets there he finds that his apartment still has tenants – namely the 92-year-old Mathilde and her daughter Chloé. He soon realizes that the apartment is a viager – a French real estate law that allows people to buy property at a reduced price as long as they allow (and pay for) the original tenants to live there until they die. Essentially Mathias has been left an apartment he can’t sell, two tenants (one of which highly mistrusts him) and a monthly debt of €2400. Man, the French are weird.
Instantly the film is set up for comedy hijinks. Mathias sheepishly asks how old Mathilde is; he goes to her doctor to ascertain how healthy she is; he stops by a real estate agent to inquire how much the apartment will make him if only he could get rid of the old lady and her daughter. However, it’s fairly apparent from the outset that the film is not too focused on getting laughs. Mathias is entirely unlikeable from the off and the actions that would perhaps create humour in another film, or from another character, end up coming across as nasty. He seems completely shut off from the emotion of the daughter and is only concerned with trying to find someone that will buy the viager contract from him, at, of course, a reduced price.
Complication enters the scene when Mathias starts to find memorabilia around the house that connects Mathilde with his father. It is at this point that the atmosphere of the film changes. Mathias falls off of the wagon and there are long scenes that truly realize the theatre origins of the screenplay. Mathias’ concerns escalate and he is forced to face some harsh realities, while at the same time growing closer to Chloé, whose feelings and memories are also being disturbed by the past coming to life. There are some very powerful scenes between the three actors and as realisations and accusations are made there is a real sense of tension. Perhaps the film lacks pacing at times, but the performances distract you well enough.
The film definitely has some problems (most notably in the way that it was marketed – I thought I was going to see a romantic comedy… it’s not one of them) and the jolt between acts can be a little jarring. It also loses its momentum and has to be carried by the actors and their magnetism. But if you can get past the lack of cohesion, there is quite a lot to enjoy about My Old Lady.
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