Friday, November 14, 2014

'My Old Lady' (2014) directed by Israel Horowitz

If you're a fan of French probate and property law then boy oh boy do I have a movie for you.  The excitingly titled My Old Lady (adapted from the director's own play!) starts with a bang – explaining the intricacies of the French viager system.  This is real adrenaline rush cinema, your heart thumping in your chest as you learn that the viager system is a system that allows elderly homeowners to realise the monetary value of their property as a lump sum (and also to receive an index-linked monthly stipend) while still remaining occupants until their death, at which point ownership of the property will transfer to the viager investor.  

Essentially, the prospective buyer weighs the amount of the lump sum (plus the stipend) against the market value of the property and the life expectancy of the occupant and decides whether he (or she) is going to get a good deal.  Now who needs Dwayne (the Rock) Johnson firing a minigun from a burning car that's also jumping through a massive explosion when you have action-packed cinema like this?!

…. okay fine I admit it this film is fucking booooooooring.  

Boring isn't the kind of word I throw around lightly, but for nearly every one of it's 107 minutes, My Old Lady is deeply, almostly masterfully, boring.  Here's the situation; broke alcoholic loser Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline) arrives in Paris having been beqeathed a house in his father's will.  He intends to make a quick sale and skedaddle with the cash, but is stymied when he discovers that his father had entered into a viager with the elderly occupant.

The titular old lady is Mathilde Girard (Maggie Smith), a 93 year old English teacher who is very comfortable with Mathias' father's viager.  She reveals to a dumbstruck Mathias that he must pay her for the privilege of living in what is essentially 'his' house.  Complicating matters is the presence of her daughter Chloe (Kristin Scott Thomas), who immediately recognises Mathias as an opportunistic loser out to ruin their idyllic life.

The rest of the film charts Mathias' explorations of the French property law, his attempts to broker a deal for his stake in the viager and the growth of his relationship with Mathilde and Chloe, both of whom turn out to be more involved in his past than he first suspected.

Nearly entirely taking place within Mathilde's dark, dusty house, every inch of this feels like a stage adaptation.  There's the odd jaunt out into the streets of Paris, but they're bizarrely devoid of life as if the populace had collectively decided to have an extended lie-in (and to be honest I don't blame them).  This zeroes the drama in on Matthias, Mathilde and Girard, who, despite efforts to inject a bit of sizzle into their past are all rather dowdy, dull characters.

Mathias in particular is a deeply annoying protagonist, spending much of the latter half of the film drunkenly wandering about, wine bottle in hand, delivering misery-laced monologues about how crap his life is, how everybody has let him down and how horrible a person he is.  Kline's supercilious performance style only serves to underline these annoying qualities.  Let's face it, there are few things more tedious than a self-pitying pisshead, very quickly you find yourself wishing the very worst upon him.  

Maggie Smith and Kristin Scott Thomas come out of this largely unscathed, but these are actors so talented that they can find something of worth even in the biggest heap of garbage. Smith in particular makes Mathilde quietly likeable, constantly hinting at a carefree Bohemian life without giving us too many particulars.  She works on the principle that “precision is key to a long life”, a proverb that may as well also apply to Smith's acting style, working out every little flicker of the eyes or pursing of the lips to maximise our potential.

Scott-Thomas isn't given a lot to work with, but she latches onto Chloe's existential blues, showing us someone who has gotten used to setting her expectations low.  Given that she's the one giving lameass sadsack Mathias a hard time we warm to her pretty quickly. Unfortunately the hard work of both women is undone by a series of revelations that make them mere cogs in Mathias' self actualisation.  They submissively accept the abuse that Mathias heaps upon them, topped off with the ludicrous development of Chloe falling in love with Mathias.  This is bizarre! The stuffed animals that populate the flat are a better romantic prospect than Mathias; a man any self respecting woman wouldn't let within 5 feet of her.

With its middle-aged to elderly cast My Old Lady is perhaps aiming for the now-lucrative silver screener audience.  But surely even these audiences don't want an outright boring experience.  With its muffled drama, hugely annoying protagonist, dull scenery, focus on financial affairs and tortoise-slow pace, the film is about as much fun as being stuck in an accountant's waiting room.  


My Old Lady is released 21st November 2014

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