Mathias Gold (one of Kevin Kline’s most emotionally versatile and finest of film portrayals) has recently inherited property in Paris left to him by his estranged father who is recently deceased. This real estate will be the key to a new life and a final payback to wipe away the bitter, twisted, and tormented relationship Mathias suffered with his father. Impoverished financially and emotionally, Mathias is in Paris in the hope of expediting the property sale. Mathias discovers what his father has left for him, a magnificent mansion in Le Marais, one of the most beautiful and historic districts of the “City of Lights.” Mathias Gold’s unlucky former prospects brighten as he investigates the location and finds the multi-roomed, grand, stately house also has a lovely garden. Excited, he discusses the potential value with a real estate agent. Indeed, it is as if he has “hit the lottery,” and Mathias is thrilled, anticipating that he will be able to enjoy a more comfortable and graceful lifestyle after he sells the place and returns to the United States.
Au contraire! There is a problem. It comes in the aspect of an old woman, 92-year-old Mathilde Girard (a clever, amiable and brilliant Dame Maggie Smith). Mathilde Girard is the resident of this property which is a viager. By degrees Mathias “sees the light” about what a viager entails and his future grows dimmer as he notes that Mathilde Girard is enjoying the magnificent, spacious house with her daughter Chloé (in another spot on and wonderful performance by Kristin Scott Thomas), even though she is not in possession of the mansion; he is.
Unlike the U.S. real estate markets whose conditions are variable state by state and offer great latitude, a viager is subject to the laws of France and enforced by rigid guarantees. Mathias to his horror discovers the terms and conditions of this “rotten” French agreement his father has made. Indeed, Mathilde Girard and her daughter hold a royal flush to his pair of cold deuces. The viager means he will not be able to evict Madame Girard. It also means he will have to pay upkeep for the mansion and a monthly rent which goes to Madame Girard and Chloé. Mathias determines that once again his father has “screwed” him. This perception is noxiously sardonic because not only does Mathias believe that his father made his life a misery during his lifetime, now his father has found a way to torment him from beyond the grave. Here is this tantalizing, valuable house whose proceeds will remain beyond Mathias’ reach until Madame Girard dies. And not only is she the picture of health, she doesn’t even have a persistent cough.
With no money and no place to go, Mathias makes a tentative arrangement to live in the mansion with Madame Girard and Chloé while the situation is resolved. This is upsetting to Chloé who dislikes and distrusts this interloper and frequently confronts him with arguments. How Mathias plans to avenge his father’s “revenge,” and tangle with Madame Girard and Chloé to settle the estate is the general tenor of the plot. However, Horovitz has added so many twists and turns along the way, he continually surprises and unfolds mysteries about the characters, yet keeps us thrilled by raising more questions. The effect is to carry us deeper into the heart of human nature and relationships as we watch these individuals negotiate and manipulate one another over crucial life arrangements. These true-to-life characters are richer and more vibrant than we initially assumed and their development follows a beautiful arc which Horovitz constructs with increasing complexity.
Layer upon layer, the family story is unraveled. Mathias is the investigator looking in one direction expecting a “typical,” anticipated result. The irony is he doesn’t fathom that he is actually discovering the truth of his own life. In one humorous and poignant illumination after another we learn what Mathias learns. The bits and pieces all relate to issues about himself and his family that have remained secret but now through his interchanges with Mathilde and Chloé are unearthed and catapulted into his awareness. Mathias’ perceptions are totally upended. Mathilde Girard, always in the catbird seat, is slick about allowing his curious, sensitive nature to gradually discover what has remained hidden.
The revelations he gleans hold transformative meanings that change Mathias’ life and ultimately impact Madame Girard and Chloé. What better place to find the revealed truth than in this beautiful “City of Lights.” The metaphors and symbolism have bloomed by the end of the film as the many issues achieve a resolution and possibility of closure so that life can resume in a new way. This is the finest of writing and film direction supported by the finest of acting talents. All come together in a joyous, satisfying whole by the end of the film.
Based on his play, Horovitz has deepened the stakes with this beautifully written screenplay and brilliantly conceived film. He has enlivened the humor and enriched the themes of the original work. All of this was happily made possible thanks to the malleability of the original source material and his selection of Kevin Kline in the key role. Kline is Mathias; I cannot imagine anyone finer for the part. Horovitz’s close collaboration with Kline in reworking the screenplay and adding a profound, romantic element (no spoiler alert…you’ll have to see how this was done), fulfills the measure, depth and breadth of this exceptional endeavor and adds a dimension that was not seen in the play. The result is sterling. Enhanced are the themes of redemption and reconciliation in the lives of these well drawn characters whose match-up with actors Dame Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, and the wonderful French supporting cast is nonpareil.
My Old Lady is a gift to those who love Paris and those who may be curious to take a journey there and see its beauties and experience its illuminations through culture, art, and every day life. Horovitz selected many picturesque scenes along the Seine and his interiors are evocative and symbolic. If his intention is a “love letter to Paris,” he has surely sealed our hearts to the “City of Lights” for a long time to come in this jewel of a film.