by Matt Levine
75-year-old playwright Israel Horovitz makes his directorial debut with My Old Lady, an adaptation of his own 2002 play that, while never quite making a successful leap from stage to screen, remains compelling thanks to its three leads. Kevin Kline stars as Matthias Gold, a 57-year-old New Yorker who has nothing to show for his nearly six decades of existence aside from a failed ambition to become a novelist, three disastrous marriages (and divorces), and a paltry inheritance following the death of his father. In Matthias’ words, he was bequeathed only a “collection of French classics—in French” and a lovely apartment in Paris, which he plans on liquidating and turning into his retirement fund. That apartment, however, turns out be less of a nest egg than Matthias had assumed: it’s still inhabited by a 92-year-old British-French woman named Mathilde (Maggie Smith) and her perpetually dreary daughter, Chloe (Kristin Scott Thomas). Mathilde’s apartment was bought by Matthias’ father in a viager arrangement—an age-old French custom whereby the seller pays a small down payment, followed by monthly fees to the current owner until their death. In other words, Matthias has inherited a “$2,400 a month debt,” and is forced to take up residence in one of the apartment’s empty room’s until Mathilde dies.
Director: Israel Horovitz
Writer: Israel Horovitz
Producers: Nitsa Benchetrit, Gary Foster, David C. Barrot, Rachael Horovitz
Cinematographer: Michel Amathieu
Editors: Stephanie Ahn, Jacob Craycroft
Music: Mark Orton
Cast: Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith, Dominique Pinon, Kristin Scott Thomas, Noémie Lvovsky, Stéphane de Groodt, Jean-Christophe Allais, Stéphane Freiss
US Theatrical Release: September 10, 2014
US Distributor: Cohen Media Group
Of course, Mathilde turns out to be an unusually lively nonagenarian (Matthias suspects it’s all the red wine she drinks), and My Old Lady’s early scenes suggest that the film will be a wry comedy about an odd-couple arrangement wherein each character learns valuable lessons from the other. Although the comedy in the first half of the film carries a bitter tinge with it (Mathilde candidly asks Matthias how he’s wasted his life, and Matthias makes snarky comments about Mathilde’s seemingly impending death), it’s also energetically performed by Kline and Smith and shot in golden, Paris-in-the-springtime hues. This air of buoyancy turns out to be misleading, however, as the second half of My Old Lady turns into a somber melodrama about adultery, parenthood, mortality, alcoholism, and suicide, with Matthias, Mathilde, and Chloe all providing stagebound monologues about their regrets and vendettas. The film’s tone jolts from light-footed humor to lugubrious drama, with little deftness or creativity in the emotional transitions.
Horovitz shows intelligence but no boldness in his directorial debut, which prevents My Old Lady from resembling anything more than a filmed play. Many of the scenes are shot in long takes, or with slowly alternating medium close-ups, that allow conversations to develop gradually; furthermore, Horovitz knows when to reframe or cut to a different perspective according to the characters’ shifting reactions. That’s the good news. Less dynamic are the pedestrian shots of well-known Paris locales (which are beautiful only in the way a travel brochure might be) and languid editing which is more mind-numbing than anything else. It makes sense that Horovitz might be unwilling to experiment too boldly in his directorial debut, but that sense of reserve makes My Old Lady aesthetically nondescript; we can never shake the feeling that this action and dialogue is suited for the stage, to be emitted demonstratively so that every point is emphasized for the audience in the furthest rafters.
But if My Old Lady often resembles a verbose, actor-friendly stage play, at least it’s a reliably well-acted one. Kline faces quite a challenge—his Matthias is often insufferable and gloomy, prone to gulp two bottles of wine and prattle on about his unhappy childhood—and some of his longwinded tirades are more tiresome than affecting. But it’s difficult to blame Kline for this, as very few actors could make such soliloquys sound believable. At his best, he’s able to infuse Matthias with a misanthropic charm that lends him a lived-in legitimacy. Smith isn’t asked to do much more than amusingly fend off Matthias’ grumpiness—even late in the film, when the proceedings turn much more serious, she’s largely (and unfortunately) dismissed in favor of Matthias and Chloe’s crises—but her delivery is lithe and genuine. There are a few lines of dialogue which suggest that Mathilde continues to lie to herself to escape overwhelming regrets, and this sense of mournfulness is beautifully imbued by Smith when it may have been absent in another actress’ approach.
Maybe most impressive, though (and in understated ways), is Kristin Scott Thomas, whose Chloe is an underwritten supporting role that takes on real complexity through her performance. One of My Old Lady’s subplots involves Chloe’s affair with a married man—a storyline which is clearly supposed to parallel a later plot reveal, and which might have been forced and unconvincing if we didn’t believe in Chloe as a lonely, stoic, but emotionally wounded character. My Old Lady has a happy ending of sorts, and although it feels a bit rushed and convenient, it takes on unexpected poignancy thanks to the genuine connection that Chloe and Matthias seem to have with each other. Kline and Thomas deserve great credit for overcoming the screenplay’s clunky dramatic revelations and evoking a tender relationship between their characters.
There’s not much meat on My Old Lady’s overwritten bones; the film is essentially a solemn family melodrama with moments of levity, and some of the more interesting subtexts of the characters’ past transgressions are overlooked in favor of histrionic dialogues. But sometimes, the opportunity to watch three capable actors (and a strong supporting cast) flex their muscles with each other is captivating enough. My Old Lady might have been a great play when it was first performed twelve years ago—the stage seems to be its natural habitat. Onscreen, it’s visually lifeless and dramatically obvious, but it’s also more absorbing than it probably should be: a testament to the power of actors working to mold and reshape subpar material, with middling success.