“My Old Lady”: What’s the matter with Paris?

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“My Old Lady” is now playing at Sundance Cinemas. R, 1:47, three stars out of four.

What is going on with Paris in the movies? Once the go-to destination for lovers looking to rekindle that spark, the City of Lights has gotten a little dark lately. “Le Week-End” advertised itself as a fizzy romantic comedy about a sixty-something couple on a romantic getaway, but the movie itself was a turbulent cavalcade of arguments and regrets in which the couple barely got away unscathed. “Frances Ha” sent its protagonist to Paris for a wild weekend, only for her to have a miserable time, culminating in going alone to see “Puss in Boots” at a Paris movie theater.

Similarly, Isarel Horovitz’s “My Old Lady” seems like another familiar sort of light-comedy drama. A self-involved American (Kevin Kline) comes to Paris to sell the apartment owned by his late father, only to find an elderly woman (Maggie Smith) living there. Surely she’ll teach him how to relax and live life the Parisian way, right?
Well, no. Kline’s character, a middle-aged failure named Matthias Gold, has problems that a baguette and a stroll along the Seine can’t fix. And “My Old Lady,” based Horovitz’s own play, goes into some pretty dark places in its depiction of children still carrying the baggage of their parents’ sins.

Matthias is at the end of his rope when he comes to Paris, and selling the apartment is his only chance at making something out of a misspent life. But living their is Mathilde Girard (Smith) and her daughter Chloe (Kristin Scott Thomas). They’re not squatters — under an ancient and byzantine French real estate arrangement called a viaget, Mathilde not only lives there rent-free, she’s paid by the owner to take care of the place. And, moreover, she can stay as long as she likes until she dies.

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Matthias is outraged at this turn of events, more so that he has to pay Mathilde rent to sleep in the apartment he now owns. He grumbles about, making plans for when the old lady finally kicks off and he can sell the stunning apartment. Kline initially plays Matthias as an arrogant, bumbling American, like an older version of his hitman from “A Fish Called Wanda,” and there are laughs to be had at Matthias’ increasing exasperation at the sweet, implacable Mathilde.

But it becomes clear that beneath that sardonic bluster is a lot of pain in Matthias’ life, much of it caused by his absent father. “You know how to ruin a kid’s life?” he asks rhetorically. “You don’t do anything. You just let him sit there, and wither.”

Matthias’ bitterness tips over into anger and grief when he learns that Mathilde had a long-term relationship with his father, and may in fact been the woman that broke up his parents’ marriage. “My Old Lady” stays true to its stage roots, sometimes to a fault, with Kline and Smith delivering long, stormy speeches so theatrical you can almost feel the heat of the spotlight.

But they deliver them well — Kline seems to relish sinking his teeth into such rich material, and his rage finds its opposite in the gentle Mathilde. With a gorgeous Paris as the backdrop, the pair slowly move towards an understanding and even reconciliation, but it’s a hard-won thing. As a showcase for good actors making the most of fine material, “My Old Lady” is a good movie. As an advertisement for a romantic getaway in Paris, maybe it’s best to go back to “Paris Je t’aime.”

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