What do you get when you cast three powerhouse actors in one comedy drama that forces all of them to reside under one roof in the centre of Paris? Well, as it turns out, a surprisingly devastating, moving, and ultimately rewarding film. Maggie Smith, Kevin Kline and Kristin Scott Thomas team up for My Old Lady, which follows the story of Mathias (Kevin Kline), a down-and-out, 57-year-old New Yorker whose father’s recent death has left him with a Parisian apartment to his name, and little else. Putting everything he has into getting to Paris, he expects to sell the lavish apartment for a handsome sum, but when he arrives he encounters 90-year-old Mathilde (Maggie Smith), who lives in the apartment under a French real estate agreement known as a viager, which means Mathilde is able to keep the apartment and receive a monthly payment from Mathias until she dies.
Frustrated by the agreement set up by his father, but having no where else to go, Mathias comes to live in the apartment with Mathilde and her daughter Chloe (Kristin Scott Thomas). The trio form a rather tenuous relationship at first, as Mathias conspires to undermine the viager arrangement and Chloe retains an unashamed loathing of Mathias. But as Mathias learns more and more about Mathilde, Chloe and their connections to his family history, secret pasts rise to the surface and Mathias’ life begins to, once again, fall apart.
My Old Lady starts as so many other comedy dramas do. Mathias is an obnoxious and self-centered New Yorker who only wants to get his money and get out, and when he clashes with proper English lady Mathilde you think this is just going to be like any other film when conflicting characters are made to reside under one roof. Following the same hackneyed story, Chloe starts out immediately hating Mathias, but the tension between the characters is a pretty obvious mask for their budding sexual tension. The first third or so of the movie plays out in this formulaic, predictable fashion that has you almost resigning yourself from the story altogether. But then a complete 180 occurs, and suddenly this trite comedy becomes a dark, tragic and rather poignant drama about the immense damage parents are capable of inflicting on their children.
It’s not the cheeriest of topics, and for what is made out to be a rather lighthearted film it was a very unexpected twist, but one that was ultimately for the better. Director and writer Israel Horovitz uses this time to really delve into the nitty gritty of the characters, exposing all their secrets, flaws and insecurities in a very human way. It also allows the actors to shine; Maggie is on-point as per usual, Kristin Scott Thomas remains one of my favourite actresses around, and Kevin Kline shows off a surprising amount of acting ability. The screenplay is scattered intermittently with comedic and romantic cliches, but there are moments of brilliance that reveal the degree to which Mathias’ parents’ broken relationship has affected him his entire life.
What began as a film we’ve all seen many times before, eventually changed into something far more stirring than expected, and something a little more special. While Mathias’ story is one of particular tragedy, My Old Lady deals with themes that every person can relate to. Because, whether your parents were around or not, they all managed to screw us up in some way, didn’t they?
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