A viager is a unique French real-estate sale– a life annuity contract made in exchange for one’s home. For example, an old lady may sign a viager contract with an interested buyer and the buyer would pay her annuity until her death, the point at which the contract would be terminated and the buyer would become owner of the home. In My Old Lady, Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline) has been willed a viager in Paris by his father, a wealthy man who donated his fortune to charity and left his broke and aging son with the debt of annuity. The woman still living in his “father’s” house in the Marais district of Paris, Mathilde Girard (Maggie Smith), is a charming British lady with a flair for fine wine and Django Reinhardt.
Yet both of these characters are eccentric. She eats precisely at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. and is disinterested in lunch. Matthias is three-times divorced and three-times unpublished. Mathilde is 92, but to Mathias’s dismay she’s in top condition health-wise. Their discourse is a back and forth comical conversation, a lot of, “I want you dead” or “I want you out of my house.” But Madame Girard offers Mathias, who prefers to go by Jim, that he can stay with her for the price of his father’s gold watch until more suitable arrangements can be made. His presence becomes even more of a nuisance, when Mathilde’s daughter Chloe (Kristin Scott Thomas) learns he is staying. She throws a dramatic tantrum and fights with her mother in French, while Mathias’s French is infantile. Chloe suspects that Matthias will sell the viager to a real-estate tycoon, who would transform their two-story townhouse into part of a chic hotel.
As Mathias spends more time with the Girards, he finds out more about his father’s relations in Paris. Although he doesn’t remember most of it, Matthias grew up there for a time during his childhood. He does however fervently recall his father’s frequent trips to Paris, where he would leave behind his mother and him in New York. Matthias finds out more about how the Gold and the Girard family are intertwined. At one point in the film Mathilde asks Matthias if he “had a drink problem.” He responded “It wasn’t a problem for me, just the people around me,” and the more he finds out about his father, the more we see how his old, “drink problem” affects those around him. Matthias’s fall is climactic even for a failure like him, but all the while you have sympathy for him and hope he will come out of it.
The first half of My Old Lady, was exclusively comedic. It poked fun at death and failure, but it was still funny. When Matthias discovers the other life his father had in Paris, the film turns into what Glenn Kelly (RogerEbert.com) deems a “domestic drama of not inconsiderable depth.” Matthias’s misery is justifiable and to his surprise congruent to Chloe’s. He regrets his father and Madame Girard, but Madame G. helps him reconcile his animosity, “I knew your father better than anyone,” she tells him “He is not the reason for your failure, poverty and sadness. You have life left. There is no greater wealth.” Though the trio meet under complicated circumstances the viager, brings them together in unexpected ways. With top notch performances by Kline, Smith and Thomas and a script that rivals the best complicated family dramas, My Old Lady, is both a humorous and thought provoking experience.