Mathias (Kevin Kline) is a middle-aged with almost nothing to his name after several unhappy marriages and a serious problem with alcohol. He inherits no cash at all when his father dies, but does get willed an apartment in Paris, so he scrapes together his last pennies for a ticket to France, and off he goes to solve all his problems.
Except there’s an old lady living in his apartment – Mathilde (Maggie Smith). And her daughter Chloe too, as it turns out (Kristin Scott Thomas). His father purchased the apartment some 40 years ago, but bought it en viager, which means he got a pretty good deal on the price, but he had to agree that not only could the current owner keep living in it until she died, he’d have to pay her for the privilege. So for 40 years the father has been paying this old lady to keep living in a home that he technically owns, and now Mathias has inherited a property he can’t sell, and which is actually a debt, with a monthly reverse-rent that must be paid or he forfeits ownership altogether.
It sounds like something that could only happen in a movie but the life lease is a real thing in the cuckoo real estate market of Paris. It’s a crazy gamble, and it doesn’t always pay off. One man who made such an investment paid and paid on a property until the day he died, and then his widow took over the payments for another 32 years because the original owner, Mme Jeanne Calment, lived to be 122! You can’t predict how long someone will live, and you’re effectively betting on their death when you strike such a deal. In the film we learn that Mathias’s father may have been otherwise motivated, but Mathias is in a tight spot, and Mathilde is looking surprisingly robust for a 90 year old.
My Old Lady is interesting for more than just its quirky real estate. It’s a tale of family strife, narcissism, childhood trauma, intergenerational sin, and forgiveness. Kline reveals his character’s damage and distress in small doses, and the 3 leads together have great chemistry, although it’s a bit difficult to watch Smith be the bad guy. Nobody looks good beating up on a nonagenarian. Director Israel Horovitz puts forth a straight-forward film that plods along a little slowly to its inevitable conclusion, but I was nevertheless charmed by 3 actors doing solid work in the beautiful city of light.