My Old Lady is basically a three-character play without a single character you can believe in. Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline), a penniless failed novelist and three-time divorcé, arrives in Paris to sell the stately apartment his father has just bequeathed to him. But he can’t take possession, he learns, as long as Mathilde Girard (Maggie Smith), his elderly tenant, is alive, because she sold the apartment to his father under France’s viager system, in which a buyer gets a property in exchange for a low down payment and a commitment to pay the seller a monthly fee for the rest of his or her life. Mathias makes an uncomfortable and highly unlikely arrangement with Mathilde, settling into an empty room in the apartment to wait for her to die. When he’s not learning about her past or haranguing her about his, he’s selling Mathilde’s furniture piece by piece behind her back to finance his stay, or trying to find a way to dislodge her and her daughter, Chloe (Kristin Scott Thomas), a tart-tongued woman who takes an instant dislike to him.
Longtime playwright and first-time filmmaker Israel Horovitz falls prey to some common mistakes in adapting his play for the screen, starting with the overlong, often redundant speeches Mathias is prone to. In addition, though Horovitz “opens up” his play by taking us through several postcard-pretty parts of Paris as Mathias tromps around town, it’s an oddly underpopulated metropolis. The characters interact with only a handful of other people before retreating back to the moody darkness of their apartment, where Mathias goes back to brandishing wine bottles while waging wordy battles against Mathilde, Chloe, and the father whose neglect he blames for the train wreck he’s made of his life.
Mathias’s grandstanding self-pity brings out the worst in Kline, whose histrionic, self-righteous pontificating soon becomes tiresome. Smith’s quiet focus upstages his showy posturing, the empathy in her enormous eyes and her expressive voice, with its seductive blend of confidence and confidentiality, making it easy to imagine Mathilde as the bold and loving free spirit of her tales of her youth. But when Mathias finds her guilty of collusion in ruining his childhood and that of her own daughter, Mathilde meekly accepts the verdict, petering into mousy irrelevance. Scott Thomas, like Smith, makes the most of an underwritten part, giving Chloe the road-worn air of a woman made wary by having been consistently let down by life while injecting enough sizzle into her attacks on Mathias to hint at fires simmering beneath her defensive shell, but not even she can make us believe her character’s tumble for the lugubrious and self-obsessed Mathias.
My Old Lady is presumably meant to be the story of a man unlocking the key to his past and finding his soul mate in the process, but Mathias’s relentless self-pity and Kline’s air of narcissistic self-regard make it into something much more crabbed and drab: the story of a perpetual malcontent and the unhappy woman he draws into a partnership that feels implausible, unstable, and virtually certain to fail.