Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Sep 06, 2014 7:35 pm 
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Squabbling in Paris over the past, and French real estate

With My Old Lady the prolific American playwright Israel Horovitz, at 75, debuts as a movie director in his own atmospheric adaptation of his play about three people squabbling in Paris over ownership and use of an apartment, and long-past events. The acting is excellent. The settings are distinctive. The story will appeal to the mature art house audience -- as well as to anyone fascinated by the vagaries of French real estate. Rather melancholy, but with a wistfully happy conclusion, this little movie is best seen as an acting-fest by three prestigious box office draws, enhanced by the presence of tasteful and beautiful Parisian backgrounds Horovitz finds to open up his original play.

Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline) is a depressed recovering alcoholic and thrice-divorced thrice-failed novelist who gives up the little he has to come to Paris and claim his one substantial inheritance from his estranged, recently deceased businessman father. This is a large apartment (with equally large garden) in the Marais that turns out to be worth around €12 million. But when he drops into the apartment, he discovers it's occupied by former owners who can't be dislodged. His father bought it in the viager system (like a US reverse mortgage but different in several key respects) from a now old lady, Madame Mathilde Girard (Maggie Smith), who must be paid €2,400 a month till she dies and occupies and effectively owns it till then. Though she's 92, her doctor (Noémie Lvovsky, in a brief, dry appearance) declares her in excellent health and unlikely to kick off any time very soon.

For the moment, Madame Girard kindly allows the indigent and desperate Mathias to bunk in a spare room in the spacious flat. But this sits very ill with her daughter Chloé (Kristin Scott Thomas), who also lives there. Clashes are comically emphasized by rude encounters due to there being only one toilette in the whole big place. Viager, specifically in this case viager occupé, requires that the buyer advance a substantial amount called a "bouquet" up front, then pay the monthly "rent" till the seller's demise. It's an excellent way to acquire valuable French property without a vast initial outlay. But it is precisely not what Mathias had in mind. He expected a large, immediate cash profit that would permit him to reboot his life. Instead he's stuck in Paris, in need of a shave, possessing only the contents of a small suitcase.

As Andrew Barker of Variety comments, Mathias' viager-induced dilemma "could have easily provided the basis for an Agatha Christie murder mystery or a black comedy, but in Horovitz’s hands, it mostly just charts the course for a marathon of spleen venting and highly verbose angst." At such venting, which hinges on adultery, and casts a very downbeat mood, all three excellent actors perform splendidly, with Kline getting the most elaborate monologues, which grow lengthy when the apartment's excellent wine cellar, which Madame Girard samples at her dinners that begin promptly at eight, causes him to fall showily off the wagon.

Meanwhile subplots include Chloé's efforts to break off a relationship with a married man and various machinations by Mathias, including attempts to work out dubious real estate deals and even to blackmail Chloé. Needless to say their acrimony eventually morphs into attraction. Essentially this is a tale about people who can only seem to achieve intimacy with others through conflict, deceit, and complaint, though Madame Girard is basically nice to Mathias, for reasons that gradually become clear.

Horovitz writes elaborate splenetic speeches for Mathias laced with Shakespearean laments and lines from Yeats, and Kline, an eminent Shakespearean, delivers them with gusto. Despite Kline's impressive performance, though, his loudly self-pitying character never fully arouses our sympathy -- nor do the ever-watchable Smith and elegantly chilly Thomas in their respective roles. All the talk just doesn't really lead to the deep revelations of character we get in great drama. Though old secrets do gradually come out, it's more the offbeat setup and the slightly melancholy elegance of the surroundings that count here. The affection for Paris of Horovitz's play-into-movie is clear, reflecting his lifestyle of dividing his time between the USA and France, where he often directs French-language productions of his plays. On his 70th birthday, Horovitz was decorated by the French government as Commandeur dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. His plays gave early opportunities to Al Pacino, John Cazale, even Gérard Depardieu. And though Kline, Scott Thomas, and Smith hardly need a career boost, My Old Lady is an enjoyable display of their thespian skills.

My Old Lady, 107 mins., debuted at Toronto and opens in US cinemas 10 September 2014; at Landmark Theaters in San Francisco and Berkeley 12 September. Mediocre reviews in general: Metacritic rating a poor 52%. Subsequent releases in eight other countries are listed but none for France, so far.

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