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'My Old Lady' Is No 'Last Tango,' But It's Still Pure Paris

Cohen Media Group
Kevin Kline and Maggie Smith in Israel Horowitz' 'My Old Lady.'

My Old Lady is not the first movie to show that getting an apartment in Paris can be dangerous. In 1972's Last Tango in Paris, by Bernardo Bertolucci, Marlon Brando's character Paul has a devil of a time when he finds one – and he loses himself in a morass of sex and death. Last Tango does not end well, it's also a lot more interesting than the trouble Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline) runs into when he inherits a Parisian flat in My Old Lady.

Gold arrives in Paris, 57 years old, broke and still in full adolescent rage against the now-dead father who left him the apartment and nothing else. It gets worse. An old woman (Maggie Smith) lives there and under a nest of French laws, Mathilde Girard not only gets to stay there for the rest of her life, but Gold has to pay her 2400 euros a month, until she dies. She's 92, but she's Maggie Smith and, like Mathias, you figure she might live well into the 22nd century.

Mathilde Girard also has a daughter, Chloe (Kristin Scott Thomas), roughly the same age as Mathias, and not doing much better in life. She still lives with her mother and pummels Mathias with a level of resentment that you know can only lead to love.

All of these elements lead to ever gnarlier complications that tumble down on morose Mathias Gold, who pouts and frets and gets angry. He even filches four of Mathilde Girard's art deco chairs and sells them because he needs the cash, and he spends much of the picture trying to find a way to unload a place with an unmovable and expensive old lady attached.

Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith and Kristin Scott Thomas are three of the best English-speaking actors we've got, and you might wonder how a movie can go so nowhere with the three of them.

My Old Lady comes from a play by Israel Horovitz first produced in 2002, and the film looks and sounds like a play. Horovitz has all of Paris to work with, but manages to give no visual coherence to the place or the people.

Other than the problems with the apartment, Mathias looks rather at home. Without a hitch he finds a lawyer, a realtor and someone to buy the furniture he stole. He's not a guy out of his element – just the opposite. The movie's lost within itself.

It's a risk-free film. Mathias and Chloe have what in real life would be serious problems, and even with limp dialogue Kline and Thomas are good enough actors to make you want to take their characters seriously. Yet the film spends so much time on them stomping around the apartment that it feels like a teen pic – if mom and dad let them go to the rock 'n' roll show will they start to behave and do their homework? Chloe and Mathias vent, but they don't struggle toward anything.

Then, without cause, the movie suddenly shifts into fix-it mode, as if all three main characters drink some kind of magic potion. The relationships are reset, and the film winds up just where you knew it would in the first 10 minutes, a bland but pretty travelogue.

The apartment is in the chic Marais section of Paris, which for My Old Lady means attractive little French shops along the street, lovely moments sitting in courtyards while the colorful street cleaners in their green uniforms hose down the sidewalks and gaily clad young Parisians on their bicycles round the corner in bright sunlight. You know Mathias is contemplating because he walks along the River Seine and catches a wistful glimpse of a slightly mysterious and fetching young woman in black singing opera on the other side. If you want a sentimental, although disappointing, postcard from Paris, My Old Lady might do it.

If you want more than that, get yourself to Last Tango in Paris.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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