MY OLD LADY

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3 stars
The viager is a curious arrangement in France where property is sold for a pittance on condition the new owner pays the vendor a stipend to live there until they die. If death comes swiftly, it's a good deal for the buyer.
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Not so much when they're still going at 92 as American Mathias 'Jim' Gold (Kevin Kline - De-Lovely) discovers on inheriting his father's Parisian apartment. Penniless, homeless and hopeless, he was looking for a quick sale but his property comes with property; Madame Girard (Maggie Smith - Quartet) and her daughter Chloé (Kristen Scott Thomas - I Loved You So Long).

Based on his own play, writer/director Israel Horovitz uses the viager as a springboard to explore grander themes of family resentment, self-pity and, eventually, self-fulfilment as it becomes clear that the old lady was much more to Jim's father than just a tenant. In fact, their ongoing relationship turns out to be the source of all his unhappiness, including divorce, alcoholism and suicide.

Sad, bleak realities that are, fortunately, somewhat tempered by Horovitz's inclination to dark humour. Moments such as Jim selling Girard's own furniture to scrape up cash for her stipend lighten the load.

My Old Lady is an interesting prospect, not only for the appealing cast but the appropriately romanticised sheen Horovitz lends Paris. This is an attractive film. Yet there's also a brooding sense that he's far too close to his own work to wrestle it free from its stage trappings.

Many passages feel bolted on in an attempt to give the story a bigger, more cinematic quality, one that doesn't quite ring true (consider the utterly pointless end-credit coda). Other plot turns such as Chloé's transition from protective to abandoned daughter come largely from nowhere, their incredulity unravelling much of the film's core strengths. It's dangerous in a story whose characters are, from the top down, not particularly likeable anyway.

The greatest loss is that despite all of the compelling elements, Horovitz never finds a way for us to jump all the hurdles he creates.

// COLIN FRASER

Previewed at Roadshow Theatrette, Sydney on September 8, 2014


3.5 stars

US playwright Israel Horovitz’s feature directorial debut, My Old Lady, is an adaptation of his own play and he has managed to successfully bring it over from the stage to the silver screen. Horovitz has an impressive body of work, being the author of over fifty produced plays and a number of screenplays. The latter include the Al Pacino starrer Author! Author!, James Dean, an award-winning biography of the actor, Sunshine, co-written with Istvan Szabo, and the Cannes Prix du Jury-winning The Strawberry Statement. My Old Lady is aided by perfect casting - the leading triumvirate of characters, although all slightly unsympathetic, radiate warmth by the end of the screening. It is worth immersing yourself in the vitriolic atmosphere to witness such fine transformations by Smith, Kline and Scott Thomas.

When a bitter New Yorker, Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline – Last Vegas), a recovering alcoholic who has inherited a large apartment in Paris from his estranged father, turns up to take ownership of the property, he encounters a viager living there. Not commonly known to Australian audiences, this basically means a life annuity property, where the buyer gambles on the life expectancy of the seller, who has sold their property for a lesser price in order to continue in residence until they die. This would not seem such a bad deal for many and particularly in this case as the tenant happens to be a 90 year-old woman. But this is no ordinary nonagenarian and, as the story unfolds, she becomes even more complicated.

Maggie Smith (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) is the old lady in residence, Mathilde Girard, an ex-pat Brit, who has kept her native tongue although she has lived in Paris for years. Her persona is not far removed from her dowager role in Downtown Abbey, albeit slightly less arch. Mathilde’s unmarried daughter Chloe (Kristen Scott Thomas – Only God Forgives), is her long-suffering companion, both irritated and at the same time intrigued by the foreign newcomer in their midst. Gold is a somewhat crass and very blunt American, who appears as miserable as they are. Mathias seeks a confidante to help him solve his financial woes and sets up several instructive meetings with a local estate agent, Monsieur Lefebvre (Dominique Pinon – Amelie). In some of the best scenes in the film, the two men conspire to try and find a solution to the problem.

This contemporary comedy/drama is probably not a film for a younger audience, but it will resonate with older patrons who like a good yarn mixed in with a bit of mystery. The dialogue is sharp and brutal and avoids slipping into emotional mawkishness. On the contrary, you spend most of your time having little empathy for Gold’s situation, while at the same time enjoying the thoroughly cynical ride. The lovely old apartment, set in a picturesque arrondisement of Paris, is certainly worth fighting for. Kline’s performance will garner acclaim, as will Scott Thomas’s acidic yet beguiling role. Their performances, combined with the very watchable and verbose character played out by Maggie Smith, make this film one of the better indie films of the year.

// SALT

Previewed at Roadshow Theatrette, Sydney on October 22, 2014
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STARRING
Kevin Kline
Maggie Smith
Kristin Scott Thomas
Dominique Pinon

DIRECTOR
Israel Horovitz

SCREENWRITER
Israel Horovitz

COUNTRY
UK / USA / France

CLASSIFICATION
M

RUNTIME
107 minutes

AUSTRALIAN
RELEASE DATE
November 13, 2014
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My Old Lady (2014) on IMDb
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