Director: Israel Horovitz
Writer: Israel Horovitz
Stars: Kevin Kline, Kristin Scott Thomas, Maggie Smith
If you were to stop, stand aside and attempt to capture what happened in the past that led to where you are now, you might capture the preposterous nature of the reality within which we all live…such as the conundrum in My Old Lady.
When Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline), a middle-aged man having a mid-life crisis, inherits a Paris apartment bought by his father forty years earlier, when he was carrying on an affair with a woman he loved, he gets a great deal less and a great deal more than he can know. The apartment comes viager, French for an agreement between buyer and seller that involves a small down payment and monthly payments to the owner/inhabitant until they die. The charming, large two-story warren of rooms complete with a garden is worth a fortune and is occupied by an extraordinarily healthy ninety-two year old woman to whom he owes more than the 2400 Euros a month until she dies – and maybe until her daughter dies.
Mathias is a flat broke New Yorker who’s been estranged from his wealthy father for most of his adult life. He hated his father for his entire childhood and blamed him for his many failures at both marriage and career. That said, Mathias is more than an ugly American intent upon selling his architectural beauty in the historic Marais district of Paris to an indifferent real estate developer. He’s turning the apartment left to him by his dreaded father into cash as quickly as possible. He’s a joke. No one does a joke like this one better than Kevin Kline.
In effect, Mathias discovers he’s been appointed guardian of his father’s mistress, the woman who drove his mother mad – worse, until death do they part. The first thing the old lady does is to take his gold watch for rent while he stays with her.
Mathilde Girard (Maggie Smith), the old lady who lives in the apartment with her grown daughter, Chloe, seems in on the joke until she discovers that she too didn’t know the dark side of the man she loved. Mathilde/Mathias; the son is the namesake of his father’s lover. They are two sides of a dead man’s life. The old man left them both a legacy, a mirror of lives lived – perhaps as all lives do, with puzzling reflections. One mirror clear, one shattered by consequences. My Old Lady reveals realities meant to remain hidden but unburied, to become revealed. Comically tragic, the father left the best time of his life to his son. No one does the other side of a cosmic joke as well as Maggie Smith.
Israel Horowitz created an emotional drama of paths never meant to cross to remind us of what can’t be known in earlier days of where one’s life is leading. When one is young and following one’s heart, one goes forth with such passion that separate acts portend a future fusion, like distant railroad tracks merging on a horizon not yet noticed. History is filled with stories in which the future reprises the past and the past revives the present as if they are exceptions when, in fact, they’re not. It’s a hard reality to see face to face, but in a play or a film like My Old Lady, we happily nod our heads in recognition as an adult drama eclipses a juvenile vision.
Preposterous, you say?
Mathias married three times to avoid being married to one woman, loving another. Mathilde’s daughter, Chloe, is a fifty-something single woman having an affair with a married man with children. Each, still a child living within a parent’s shadow, lives a life darkened by a past never left behind. Each represents the reason their parents remained married. Each of them has stayed un-married. And neither had children. Each remains the child looking for love in all the wrong places. So, of course, they’re great together. Each understands the other’s crackling façade and woeful longing. But Chloe, the middle (wo)man in the joke, played by an acerbic Kristin Scott Thomas, bears her own burden.
Mathilde, of course, cannot really know who Chloe’s father is. Her affair with Mathias’ father paralleled her marriage. The only wonder is that she only had one child. And even casting suggests a physical familiarity between Mathias and Chloe. Before the news is broken of whose father was with whose mother when, an old photo found by Mathias declaring his father’s poetry-laced words of love for Mathilde, Chloe and Mathias find themselves kissing on the old lady’s piano bench. Mathilde, a sharp-minded woman, discreetly inquires of Mathias “if he and her daughter were awake together last night.”
Preposterous, even more so.
But, of course. It’s Paris. Magic is everywhere. Mathias’ real estate agent lives on ‘the blood of Paris,’ a barge on the Seine. The real estate developer is haute courtier. Les parcs are looked in upon with envy through green iron fences. The sidewalks are made of rough stone, lined with posts to tie up your horse. Doors and hardware are ancient and fabulous, with secluded courtyards in peeking distance beyond. Mathias walks on bridges that pass in front of Notre Dame, up and down steps from the Seine that rise toward streets with postcard stands. Famous statues stand amidst colorful flowers in full bloom. Curious lovers, carrying a small fluffy dog, stop and offer gentle smiles to Mathias sitting on a wall and finishing a bottle of wine after he’s learned a deadly fact. He waves them off with a few words, “the end of the wagon.”
Mathias returns to his apartment with the old lady and an exchange of realities not to be snuffed with alcohol, regardless of how many bottles of her vintage wine he drinks. He and she learn truths from one another that finally lay her lover and his father to rest and bring them squarely into the tonal ring of Paris. “Viager,” softly spoken vee-ah-jay, after all, is meant to be a win-win gamble. An elder lives out their late years in the comfort of their own home. The younger buys into a future no longer for sale at prices he or she can afford. It could be said that the father’s deal has left Mathilde and Mathias (and Chloe) with a legacy of love from a time past. They only have to find it in themselves, now in the present.
Preposterous, yes, and you will have to go yourself to see how Horowitz decides to extract an ending to a love story that is, once again, beginning. Mathilde does give Mathias the gold watch back, a timepiece she’d once given his father. As adults, we can be nostalgic about the dark side of our history for, perhaps, it takes a lifetime to gain assurance that endings turn over into wonders of anticipation once more not to be resisted.
In a last scene, Mathias hears a stranger singing by the Seine and – of course, it’s Paris – joins her in a duet before he takes the steps back into his life to come. So many of us have walked, talked, loved and lost – or won — a lifetime of dreams along the banks of the Seine in Paris.
Fin, indeed. Interfere with the future if you must. We simply cannot learn about the world without changing it.