How many love letters can one city stand? Beaucoup, it would seem, if the city in question is Paris.
Written and directed by first time film director Israel Horowitz, My Old Lady is just that – Horowitz’s version of a love letter to the city he has written several times as a playwright.
My Old Lady is a complicated story about three very complicated people. Matthias Gold (played so very beautifully by Kevin Kline) has just inherited a Paris house – but little else - from his wealthy, estranged father. To his shock, it seems that the property is still inhabited – by Mme Mathilde Girard, a nonagenarian, and her daughter Chloé (Kristen Scott-Thomas, of course!). Under French law, this maison en vie âgée is the legitimate residence of Mme Girard until her death. In the meantime, the completely skint Matthias is expected to pay a living allowance of €2400 every month in order to maintain the agreement.
Maggie Smith is the most English of English actresses, and in this role she is Mme Girard, the 90-something semi-retired English teacher, which is smart casting. I felt as though the playwright was speaking through her when she said: “Englishness is so obvious, you have no choice”. Horowitz originally wrote My Old Lady as a play, and it has been performed in over 20 languages since its première. It has been thoroughly rewritten for film, and cast with such a depth – even a bit-part such as the Doctor (Horowitz!) was played by an actor-auteur Noémie Lvovsky, who created Camille Rewinds (2012). Some trivia for you – Lvovsky received a bijou as payment for her role in My Old Lady rather than a paycheck.
It is shot entirely in Paris, at a location called La Manufacture in Les Gobelins. (Run a mental line due south from Île Saint-Louis, stop around about half way to the Périphérique and you’re in the right neighbourhood.) As you would expect from a successful play, the script is complex and well thought through, and of course there are plenty of plot twists and turns. Happily, the film adaptation skilfully includes beautiful shots of the Paris location, both interiors and exteriors, without it becoming too much of a tourist’s visual checklist. I am a big fan of peeking over actor’s shoulders, and this was one of those films where I enjoyed the settings as well as the story.
The opening scene of the film has Kevin Kline walking through inner city Paris, past a piece of graffiti in English “Today is the shadow of tomorrow”, which resonates through the story. One wonders whether this piece of graffiti was pure serendipity, or whether some (temporary) vandalism was necessary on the part of the filmmakers. Given the méchanceté (naughtiness) of the protagonists and the pervading air of liberties being taken, it’s easy to speculate…
Keep an eye out for Matthias’s real estate agent, Dominique Pinon – fans of French cinema will know him from so many works, including the perennial favourite Amélie. It transpires that he was also performing Shakespeare live in Paris during the filming period (Richard III). He also played Vriess in Alien: Resurrection, and is known for working with Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Audience members who choose to stay through to the end of the credits are rewarded with a tiny treat of a moment between Klein and Pinon.
Horowitz quoted Samuel Beckett, “A writer who explains his writing is like a snail explaining its shell,” during a recent discussion of this film, and I think he’s right to leave the explanations and analyses to others. There is plenty to inspire discussion in My Old Lady, so I can recommend seeing it with friends, and afterwards, opening a bottle of Côtes-du-Rhône and letting the conversation meander the streets of Paris.