Saturday, September 27, 2014

High Noon In Paris

I’ve always had a thing for Paris. 

OK, there’s something really unimaginative in that, I know; it’s surely America’s favorite foreign destination (which kind of taints the place). And it was the first foreign place I ever visited as an adult under my own steam. So in my case maybe it’s just bland expectation with a dollop of nostalgia. But the Paris I’ve always loved is a place of music, the city of Chopin and Debussy and Ravel, and most especially it’s a place for organ music. This is where Duruflé lived and worked, and César Franck and Louis Vierne and Charles-Marie Widor and Camille Saint-Saëns and Marcel Dupre and Olivier Messiaen and Charles Tournemire. These composers are a huge part of what I love in music, and Paris is where they lived and worked and, not incidentally, where the incomparable Cavailé-Coll organs on which they played are located (as was his shop).

Anyway, this musical background—in addition to all the other things the draws the place to traveling Americans—means that any story set in the city gets a couple of free passes. And when you add in an all-star cast, as in Israel Horovitz’s new film My Old Lady, there seems every reason to expect success.

Kevin Kline plays Mathias Gold, a triple-divorcée from New York who learns upon his estranged father’s death that he has inherited an apartment in the City of Light. Mathias is a man to whom life has dealt a bum hand, it seems; he’s a rather embittered and tactless man staring down the barrel of old age armed with little more than an acerbic sense of humor. He arrives in Paris with everything he owns in life stuffed into a small duffel bag, guided by a letter in his jacket pocket that he scarcely understands and which in any case doesn’t begin to give him the real lay of the land.

He arrives to find the apartment occupied—for decades—by Mathilde Girard (Maggie Smith) and her daughter Chloé (Kristin Scott Thomas), and Mathias quickly discovers that he can’t, as he planned, simply evict the tenants and sell the apartment and live off the proceeds. Mathilde, who was Mathias’s father’s lover many decades ago, has what I can only regard as an utterly bizarre living situation: she (or her rental contract) is referred to as a “viager,” which means that she has a legal right to the apartment, whoever the owner, until she dies. Far worse for the penniless Mathias—this is the bizarre part—HE is under obligation from the viager contract to pay HER a whopping 2,400 Euros per month for the privilege of living in his apartment. Until she dies.

A day later I’m still trying to make sense of this. The film almost needs to stop the projectors at this point and subject us to a lesson in the arcane bits of Parisian real estate law if we are to have any hope of understanding the situation and sympathizing with the protagonists. It remains the case that Mathias has, as expected, inherited something of great value; but the mountain he must climb to attain his prize is quite unexpected and even surreal. He will have to outlive the Feisty Mathilde before he sees a penny of his inheritance, and the cost of outliving her could be staggering. Indeed, the requirement to pay her to live there is an impossibility for him and, worse still, it makes the apartment very nearly unsaleable as any buyer would be hamstrung by the same requirement.

Into this mix is thrown Mathilde’s daughter Chloé. Approaching Mathias’s age, she is similarly at sea, working a kind of nowhere job and tending to her aged mother in a huge apartment that someone is now trying to yank from under them.

It’s not a bad premise as stories go, and one could hardly have brought better resources to bear in terms of acting talent or setting. So why doesn’t it make for a better film? Partly because the only sympathetic character here is Mathilde (Maggie Smith is a national treasure). I don’t think the writer’s intention is for us to dislike Mathias—and lord knows we sympathize with the ludicrous and unfathomable yoke placed around his neck when he touches down in Paris—but there’s just nothing to cheer for in this character. Bitter and unhappy for reasons that remain remote to us, he’s just not a guy one senses the need to know. And Chloé even less so. Her distress at having the home in which she’s spend most of her life taken from her is quite understandable; but she spends most of her screen time being terse or snappy or hysterical, such that the inevitable rapprochement with Mathias makes almost zero emotional sense—and there’s not even a rational case made for it. It’s all very deus ex Mathilde, dispensed with a throw-away line or two.

I just didn’t buy it, and I had little desire to spend any more time with any of these people. I can get my fill of Paris by watching the opening five minutes of Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris over and over again. Or picking something almost at random from my iTunes.

Grade: C.

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