Sometime during the 1960s, a Frenchman named André-François Raffray made what seemed like a sound investment. He purchased the apartment of a 90-year-old woman en viager, meaning that he owned it but that she would retain occupancy for the rest of her life. The purchase price: a monthly stipend, amounting to only about $500, to cease the moment she kicked the bucket. Given her advanced age, this seemed like a steal—even if she managed to hang on for a few more years, the total amount Raffray would pay would be far less than the apartment’s actual value. Unfortunately for him, the woman, Jeanne Calment, lived to be 122, and Raffray wound up dying two years before she did, after paying her nearly $200,000. Indeed, even after he died, his heirs had to continue making the monthly payment, in accordance with French law.
My Old Lady isn’t explicitly based on this deal, but it’s hard to believe that writer-director Israel Horovitz, who adapted the film from his own stage play, wasn’t inspired by it. Maggie Smith, who’s just shy of 80 in real life, plays Mathilde Girard, a 92-year-old Englishwoman who spent most of her life in Paris and still inhabits a valuable apartment there. That comes as a huge shock to Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline), an American who’s just inherited the apartment and had no idea, until he arrived in Paris to sell it, that he’s actually inherited a large monthly bill (2,400 euros, in this case, or about $3,100 U.S. dollars at today’s exchange rate). Dead broke and angry at his late father, who’d never expressed much love toward him, Mathias moves in, paying Girard rent, and proceeds to negotiate with a real-estate mogul (Stéphane Freiss) who plans to raze the building as soon as the old lady dies and build a luxury hotel in that spot. That would leave Girard’s middle-aged daughter, Chloé (Kristin Scott Thomas), homeless, but Mathias doesn’t much care.
Not at first, anyway. There are secrets and lies aplenty in Horovitz’s scenario, beginning with the revelation that Mathias’ father and Girard were lovers. Is it possible that Chloé is his half-sister? Or does she represent a possible romantic interest? My Old Lady teases both possibilities, clumsily shifting back and forth between light, pleasant comedy and surprisingly grim melodrama. Kline is required to go to some pretty dark places, which he handles with delicacy; unfortunately, he’s also required to turn into the kind of exaggerated, just-off-the-wagon drunk who stumbles around swigging wine from the bottle and falling off of chairs, which makes it hard to take Mathias’ pain seriously when it unexpectedly arrives. A sprightly score by Mark Orton (Nebraska) is likewise at odds with the story’s increasingly sober direction. Apparently struggling to please two very different audiences at once, Horovitz seems to have little control over the material, ultimately wrapping things up with a neat little bow that makes a mockery of the preceding ugliness. There’s a potentially compelling movie here about the price that children pay—over entire lifetimes—for their parents’ selfish indulgences, but it winds up smothered in feel-good cuteness.