There is a certain stagnant claustrophobia in the sprawling Paris apartment that serves as the setting for Israel Horowitz's screen adaptation of his play, My Old Lady. I've had this feeling as a child when visiting the homes of elderly relatives. Apart from the furniture and decades of accumulated clutter, there is something intangible that blocks natural light and sucks the air out of the room, making you grateful for the first opportunity to step outside. I felt the same way watching this film, because Horowitz has the building blocks of what should be something truly remarkable, but instead he delivers something quite stale.
When failed novelist and recovering alcoholic, Mathias Gold, played by Kevin Kline, inherits an apartment in Paris from his estranged father, he is eager to sell the place as soon as possible. The presence of Maggie Smith's Mathilde, an elderly tenant, and her daughter, Chloe, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, combined with the weirdest real estate laws I have ever heard of, throw a wrench into his plans. Broke, and stuck paying rent to Mathilde for occupying a room in the apartment he now owns (like I said, weirdest laws ever), Mathias pokes around in various drawers and cupboards discovering hidden family secrets and scandals.
Horowitz's flippant dialogue is clever enough, and with powerhouse actors like Kline, Smith, and Scott Thomas, I expected great things. Instead, the film is just another adaptation that isn't as good on screen as on stage. The plot feels misdirected, coming across as a charming romantic comedy at first, swerving clumsily into deep melodrama, and then back to whimsical love story. The apartment itself, though spacious and tastefully appointed, fosters a sense of tedium and inertia that clashes with the actors' increasingly animated performances. As deeper and darker grievances come to light, the cramped setting suffocates the performances to the point where they feel phoned in. This tug-of-war between the film's stylistic elements ultimately jars the flow of the narrative. Take the soundtrack, for example. I get that every film set in Paris absolutely must feature the same too-charming organ grinder/violin/accordion music, but it just doesn't fit here. Following up the melodramatic emotional unravelling of your main character with an abrupt transition to that saccharine, tinny, 'ah, l'amour' waltz-y business really kills the mood.
You did do a fine job giving Mathilde's apartment (or is it Mathias' apartment? I still don't actually know) that frozen-in-time quality that perfectly matches the mindset of its occupants. The space complements a narrative that treats the topics upon which it touches like dusty curios in an old room; childhood baggage, infidelity, and filial antagonisms are picked up, examined with mild interest, and set aside when the next, more interesting object is spied.
While reasonably well-wrought on their own, the narrative and stylistic elements simply do not fit together, chafing against each other in a way that indicates an overall lack of certainty, resulting in a film that isn't quite sure what it wants to be. To be fair, My Old Lady is not without its charming moments, but they all take place in the brief sojourns from the main plot. Mathias' friendship with a local realtor, and a random riverside encounter with an opera singer brought a smile to my face, and made me wonder if Mathias had to go home right then or if he could stay outside and play just a little while longer.