In the first scenes of My Old Lady, we see Kevin Kline strolling the streets of one of the chicest areas of Paris, Le Marais (literally “The Swamp” which it once was).
His character, Jim, né Mathias, Gold, has come to claim his inheritance, an unusually large apartment in one of Paris’ most expensive neighborhoods, formidable in both the English and French definitions.
We see him pass by the croisement of the rue des Francs-Bourgeois and the rue de Sévigné.
It is curieux that he’s walking the streets of Paris in the manner in which one walks the streets of New York, that is to say, purposefully, directly, not en flânant, the more leisurely gait of tourists, artists, and writers, which Jim has long aspired to be.
If only he knew the best croque-monsieur in all of Paris was around the corner, at the Royal Turenne….
He is intent on finding his apartment because, as we learn a few moments later, this is all he now has in the world.
Jim knocks, no ones answers, the doors are creaky and it feels dank, but oh là, quelle aubaine!
The apartment is commodious, even by outsized American standards. That the estate’s liquid assets went to charity may not be the kind of “screw-you” gesture that Jim has come to expect from his father after all.
The first room he pokes his head into is full of hunting rifles and decorative taxidermy- literally, foreboding carnage. Bizarre, but peu importe.
In any case, Jim has no plans to live in Paris, he’s going to sell the apartment which should provide for him for the rest of his life.
Blending in with the furniture is Mme Mathilde Girard (Maggie Smith).
Jim hasn’t spoken French since his childhood. Conveniently the old lady is British, so not only is there no language barrier to forestall his establishing ownership, there’s no need for distracting subtitles- although Dame Maggie’s pronunciation is presque parfaite.
Although Jim announces himself as the owner of the apartment in which Mathilde has been squatting, she doesn’t panic at learning of her imminent eviction. Peculiarly, she seems to pity this vulgar arriviste.
He clearly doesn’t know la situation– she even says it in French to lessen the blow. Jim hadn’t been worried that the lawyer Maître Bruno didn’t speak English. He has a letter, in French, that proves he owns the apartment.
Où est le problème?
Welcome to France! Land of
Liberté, Fraternité, and Bureaucratie.
La situation is that the apartment is called a viager, that it rhymes with the word piégé (trapped) is not a coincidence.
A contrat viager is the French version of a reverse mortgage, likely influenced by the existential philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre, author of Huis Clos (No Exit).
A viager apartment is a property purchase agreementin which the buyer is entitled to buy the property at a low price, not ironically called a petit bouquet (think funerals) in exchange for providing the seller, usually elderly, an income and allow them to remain in the apartment for the rest of their life.
Jim, now going by his French name Mathias, realizes to his horror, not only is no money coming to him, money is to come from him as the monthly stipend of 2400€ is due within a few days. Mme Girard will generously allow him to stay in his apartment, but asks to be compensated for his room and board.
The viager laws in France date back to 1685.
The best real-life story of a viager is that of the oldest woman who ever lived, rapper Jeanne Calment. Undoubtedly, she was able to reach the age of 121 because of her viager apartment.
She had sold it at a very low price, to a lawyer when she was 90. He was to pay her $500 a month for the rest of her life and upon her death would inherit the property.
He died before she, at the youthful age of 77. His family inherited the obligation, and by the time Calment died, she had been paid three times the value of her house.
Once he has a grasp of la situation, Mathias asks Mathilde how old she is rather directly and rudely, –wouldn’t you? She answers that she’s 90, but it turns out she’s lying. She’s 92.
Maggie Smith is nowhere near 92, and not only is she unafraid to play that age, she does it without claymation latex makeup.
Mathias realizes the horror that not only has he inherited an apartment that he can’t own, he’s inherited an old lady! It turns out the old lady has a daughter, Chloé (Kristin Scott-Thomas), whose presence can only complicate Mathias claiming his property.
Kevin Kline hides his fluency in French quite well. I suspected as much after seeing the cad he played in French Kiss where he didn’t sound like Inspector Clouseau when he spoke French.
He has even played the lead in a French movie Queen To Play (Joueuse) in 2009. Although it was released theatrically in the U.S., it did not get the attention it deserved, a sad trend in Kline’s career of late.
Kline helped Horowitz develop the his character in workshops to adapt this play to a movie. He warmed up to the part and agreed to take it because “it might be the last time as an actor he gets the girl,” according to the production notes.
N’ importe quoi!
While I haven’t seen nor read the play, it is adapted quite well for the screen. Much credit goes to the beautiful City Of Lights and the beautiful quartiers where the story is set.
Credit is also due to the playwright himself, who adapted his own screenplay and directed the movie- his first at the age of 75. His inspirational achievement may be due to mistrust of his material in the hands of others, particularly the bomb that was this movie.
Movies need to have action, even those not in the action genre. Plays are about dialogue in as few settings as possible. Ultimately, the story of My Old Lady is the same story told by the play. What elevates the movie beyond the filmed play it could have been is the supremely talented cast. All were stage-trained and have had distinguished film careers.
In an article I won’t link to because it contains spoilers, Horowitz revealed- to himself, surprisingly- the inspiration for the story.
He was on a plane and struck up a conversation with his seatmate, an old Jewish lady, while the plane waited for takeoff.
The woman turned out to be the author Isaac Bashevis Singer’s widow. “So you never know who (sic) you’re sitting beside. I kept in touch with her -her name was Alma.” They met while married to other people and left behind their spouses and children to marry.
Contemplating the collateral damage he said, “Their story must have influenced me with this movie. I never thought of it before.”
Earlier, I mentioned the croisement of the rue des Francs-Bourgeois and the rue de Sévigné.
I wonder if Mr. Horowitz was aware of the fact that the rue de Sévigné was named after the “alms houses” built there to provide lodging for the destitute who were not required to pay taxes. Ironic considering la situation, non?
A close-up shot of the document he’s carrying names the address of the apartment as 13, rue Payenne. I checked this address, not only because that’s what Le Movie Snob does, but because I lived in that neighborhood for a few months.
The address does match the exterior shots, yet somehow, I couldn’t quite believe that apartment was actually in that neighborhood- it turns out I’m right.
The apartment you see in the movie is actually in the 13th arrondissement, not the 3rd.
It’s quite a way aways:
The movie was shot in La Manufacture of Les Gobelins where luxurious tapestries have been made since the 15th century.
Today,while it is mostly a vast complex of buildings and apartments used as residences for government workers, the tapestry factory is open to visitors.
They found an apartment there, creaky floors and already in disrepair that allowed them to shoot without the noise and limitations of the narrow, medieval streets of Le Marais.
How did I know? Intuition mostly. The courtyard was too unkempt, and the garden seemed too large for that area. Despite my mentioning this, the apartment does work in the movie, and the other exterior shots of Paris match up so those familiar with the city should have no Da Vinci Code geographic discombobulating headaches.
The French actor Dominique Pinon, who plays property agent Monsieur Lefebvre, speaks wonderful English. It was nice to see him cast in a role that didn’t need to exploit his unusual physical appearance.
Ironically, this is actress/writer/director Noémie Lvovsky’s second movie involving a gorgeous Paris apartment and France’s oppressive apartment laws; she played the landlord in the painfully boring Le Grand Appartement.