Kevin Kline as Matthias Gold and Maggie Smith, Matilde Girard (no she is not his mother after all) in My Old Lady 2014)
Have you ever listened
to the steps of your mother
walking around the whole house
during the night
without putting the lights on,
knowing her way in the dark by heart,
step by step,
as drop by drop
from a leaking roof?
How she runs her fingers on the walls,
to make out the features
of her past life,
turned into a house.
— Blaga Dimitrova, trans. Ludmilla Popova-Wightman, from poems to her mother, Scars
Dear friends and readers,
I went to see this film because after having been told by one of the three students left in my gothic class “don’t miss it, Ellen, I loved it,” and noticing it was play in only one theater in all my area, and that the theater which specializes in good unusual films because there is no parking around it, except maybe weekday mornings (Shirlington); after noticing all this, I say, I saw the author, director, and part producer is Israel Horovitz. Well Jim and I used to know him: Israel was enrolled in the Ph.D. program in English at the Graduate Center while I was there. I remember Jim talking to him, then telling me “we must see The Line” (we never did, nor Indian Joe wants the Bronx). I knew Israel was a gifted dramatist. As the film came to its close, I thought to myself, Jim would have said, “it’s okay, a win.” He’d have liked the movie as a whole.
It’s the story of Matthias, a sad man just over 57 who has nothing, no money, no friends, no career, but whose father has left him a large old beautiful house and garden in one of the more exquisitely preserved neighborhoods of Paris — part of the pleasure of the film is these streets, the bridges, the waters, the houses, furniture, all we see. Twice Jim rented an apartment for us and Izzy in just such a courtyard in Paris.
Matthias arrives from NYC to find his father’s aging mistress, Mathilde Girard, living there with the right to stay until she dies and to be paid 2400 Euros a month by the house’s owner (by French law). She has living with her, a daughter, Chloe, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, an English teacher, who we gradually come to see is as lost as to any joy in her life, or hope for something she finds sustaining to do, as he is. She is more than irritated by Matthias’s presence and the threat he represents (he wants to sell the place to a developer); she is angry
It was originally a stage play, and the characters emerge through their talk, with the sets (albeit real places) used symbolically,
The gradually compelling interest is the unfolding of these three characters’ pasts, especially that of aging old woman, Matilde, who puts on quite a performance as a woman of the world, all savoir faire, adjusted to all the hard truths of life, as she spends her last years in a civilized pattern of dining, drinking, reading, teaching too (young French adults to read English. specifically James Joyce), all equability. Maggie does not break down quite as far as both Kline and Thomas (I feel impelled to use their real names somehow) as they all slowly make out the features of their painful shared pasts to one another — Matthias’s mother killed herself after years of living marginalized while her husband was the faithful lover and companion of Matilde; Chloe could be the daughter of Matthias’s father and not her mother’s husband who lived not far from the house most discreetly (and mostly broke). Matilde insists her long life with Mattias’s father was a deeply happy and fulfilled one, that he was a kind, generous, tactful, loving man. Well not to me, declares Matthias. Matilde would prefer him to believe his miserable state at this point is all his fault (for being an egoistic depressive you see). Confronted with Chloe’s suddenly open feelings of how her legitimate father hated her (discreetly of course), and how Chloe has given up her life to her mother by living with her (I never asked you to, replies Matilde), Matilde has nothing to offer as compensation — except life itself. That she says is enough.
As I watched I felt that Horovitz was examining and releasing his own self-doubt, rage, hurt, and using the desperate attempts of Matthias to re-establish himself (he visits antique shops with furniture taken from the house to sell it) as part of a quiet reflection of the middle years of his life — Matthias it emerges is a failed American playright, has endured divorces too many. Chloe is reactive (during the course of the film she breaks off a long standing affair she had been having with a married man with two children and a grandchild to boot). Each of them finds old photos and brings them out to show the others. Like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, taking down his bundle to open and going over the things in it. There is something “old Woody-Allenish” about this film; Horovitz in this first film (he’s 75) is much influenced by Woody Allen.
Kline has the most lines, Thomas the strong sudden movements, but Smith has more presence than either. At one point she forces herself up the stairs (the first time in years it seems) to find and comfort her daughter, to take back something she has said, the walk itself bringing to mind her journey. She ends up dominating the film. We feel for her as she holds on to her cherished memories, with more effort we begin to see than she’s showing (a quiet moment shows her reading in bed, tiring, and as she falls asleep to the side, Thomas coming in and taking off her glasses, covering her). Yes, she says, she lies (a lot). Her dignity is a daily act that keeps her going.
It does fall off at the close, a “pat denouement” Glenn Kenny calls it. Of course Mattias and Chloe turn to one another, become lovers and we are in a romance; when it seems possibly they are half-brother-sister, Matilde is still unperturbed: what’s the harm (both past breeding), if you find happiness …, the film punts, and we are shown Kline collecting some DNA results from Matilde’s doctor to show Chloe is after all not his half-sister: her legitimate was her biological father. Happily this part of the film is short. The point is everyone’s better instincts are brought forth, and Mattias decides not to sell, and to stay, Chloe to cooperate, and all may build a life here among the flower beds near the Seine — where people sing songs from Mozart’s Don Giovanni as they walk.
The good and genuinely moral message of the film is give of yourself, forgive others, keep with them if they will have you and are themselves good people (not destroyers) and stay alive. The real problem may be seen by contrasting it with Allen’s better films. My Old Lady needed to be funnier. There is not enough self-irony, not enough distance nor reaching out to the audience. Delpy did that in her imitation of Allen set in Paris: reached out. Horovitz is too guarded.
The reviews have not been generous. Not enough insight into themselves is brought out; this is no Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (with Burton, Taylor, Sondra Dee tearing themselves and one another truly apart). It’s gentle, like the effective background music. (One person near me stayed through all the credits, not to see the surprise comic last scenes interpersed, but learn who sung which songs.)
As a light comic play taking a deep plunge below the surface of what has been now and again turned into a grave movie, My Old Lady will yield some analogies and parallels, like the one I find in the poetry of Dimitrova characterizing her mother. This room here had some splendid parties, that there we ate and read in, over there we played the piano … such are some of the lines Matilde murmurs and speaks aloud now and again