The last time Kevin Kline journeyed to France on film, he played a French jewel thief who duped Meg Ryan into committing a crime in “French Kiss.” In “My Old Lady” he’s back in the City of Light but this time around he’s a desperate, down-on-his luck New Yorker who inherits an apartment from his late father, only to find it comes with strings.
Kline is Mathias Gold who travels to Paris in the hope of selling his estranged father’s huge and valuable apartment. He’s broke and has three ex-wives to go along with the three novels he wrote and never published. When he arrives his lack of proficiency in French isn’t his only problem. An elderly English woman, Mathilde Girard (Maggie Smith) lives in the apartment with her daughter Chloé (Kristin Scott Thomas). The apartment is a “viager,” and according to French real estate laws, because Mathilde has possession of the place Gold must pay her a “rent” of 2400 euros a month until she dies. If he defaults, she keeps the flat. “I own this apartment and I also own you,” he says. As tensions run high the old lady makes a startling revelation. “Your father and I were lovers since I was twenty-nine,” she says. “If you want to know for whom you are named, you are named for me. I am Mathilde, you are Mathias.”
“My Old Lady” is the kind of film that is enhanced by its performances. What begins as a fish out of water story about real estate and desperation slowly becomes a character study. It’s very theatrical, which makes sense given playwright-turned-film-director Israel Horowitz’s background, but the stage-bound feel doesn’t take away from the rawness of the emotions or the snappiness of the dialogue. By turns comedic, by turns tragic, “My Old Lady’s” carefully crafted acting earns it a recommend.