Playwright Israel Horovitz not only wrote the scenario, which is based on one of his plays. He also directed this film. Some reviewers call it a “soft-centred piece of movie confectionery, not without charm”. They probably missed quite a few thought-provoking dialogues in “My old lady”.
Mathias, played by Kevin Kline, is walking through sunny Paris, trying to located the apartment his dad left him. He finds it at nr 13 in some street in the Marais. He enters through the large gate, does not bother the concierge, and manages to not only step inside the main building, but also his inherited place.
He wanders through nearly all the rooms of the two-floor apartment taking photos. Only in the last room does he finally find an occupant. It’s a very old lady, played by Maggie Smith, fast asleep. When he wakes her, he not only discovers his apartment has a sprawling garden. Mrs G is a “viager”.
Nearly 45 years earlier, Mathias’ father bought the sprawling place from the widowed Mrs G. According to French tenancy rights, she’s not only allowed to live in the house till she dies. Like his father before him, Mathias actually has to pay her about 2500 Euro per month. On top of this, Mathias’ father only left him a gold watch and nothing else. Mathias sold his NY apartment to fly out to Paris and is now completely, totally broke.
Mrs G being a sly and crafty businesswoman, offers Mathias an upstairs room with breakfast and dinner, in exchange for his gold watch – for the time being. Mathias being a sly and crafty guy, soon has a deal with an antiques dealer, finds an estate agent, and was already negotiating a sale of the house before he ended up in Paris.
But then Mrs G’s daughter Cloé, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, turns up. She also has rooms in this apartment, which after all, is the place where she grew up. And Cloé is far less welcoming than her mother and totally not pleased about having to share one toilet with a stranger.
After the semi-secret which was never mentioned in the family starts to unravel, Mathias starts drinking – seriously. Of course, In the end, a solution is found and the three will outwit the slick project developer. Mathias makes new friends. will stay in Paris longer than he expected, and even gets back the gold watch which was a gift of Mrs G to his father.
But before there is this new future in Paris, there are quite a few shocking revelations. All three main characters have to come to terms with their past. All have to face they made choices in life. These choices damaged other people and relationships.
One of the messages of the play and now film is, that a person may not be aware of causing damage or even never having had the intention to hurt – but that it happens. Another message is, that different people living through a situation, may experience it totally differently. This is not only the case between Mrs G and Mathias, but also between mother and daughter.
Such a message, that it is impossible to lead your life without damaging others, is not a pleasant reality. And there are more: when Mathias moans his four or so manuscripts have never been published and he is broke, Mrs G sharply points out that compared to her, he is very rich. He has another half of life to look forward to, she only has a few more years left.
So to compare this film to a pain au chocolat, gateau mocha, dacquaise, or other French pastry, cake, gateau – is only possible if you watched it, while blotting much of the dialogue, many scenes, and some serious issues it addressed.
There is not only the excellent acting and the surprises and twists in the plot. There are of course beautiful scenes of Paris. Though not all of the film was shot in the now frightfully expensive Marais area, if you once visited Paris – even only for a day or weekend – this film will recapture much of the holiday mood.
There is the Seine, Notre Dame, the parks, the Rue Sevigné and many other places in and near the Marais, which are such a pleasant presence in the background. If you’ve yet to visit and discover Paris: on a sunny day, it’s a grand old lady and really looks like this. Parisians too, are quite kind once you get to know them – and can be as sly and coy as Mrs G. So go and watch the film for a lesson or two about human relationships, as well as a pre- or after-taste of seductive Paris.