The French have a peculiar system of home ownership that allows for the tenant to stay on in a residence after it has been sold until his or her death. Mathias (Kevin Kline) only finds this out when he travels from New York to Paris to claim the apartment that has been left to him in his father’s will. Ninety-year-old Mathilde (Maggie Smith) lives there with her spinster daughter Chloé (Kristin Scott Thomas), and they have no intention of moving.
The opening suggests a comic drama, with the irascible nonagenarian, the ice maiden and the hapless Yank squabbling as they pursue their own agendas. But things take an unforeseen leap into the secrets and lies that float about in the dark seas of all family histories and the movie changes character to follow a different storyline.
The hints that are dropped regarding Mathilde’s relationship with Mathias’s father set the tone, along with a an affair that Chloé is having with a married man – an affair that is an unconvincing and utilitarian piece of scriptwriting.
What unfolds is a little overwrought but, thanks to the fine performances, absorbing enough – even if it resembles more an actors’ workshop.
The problem with Israel Horowitz’s film is that it has been adapted from his own play and is never able to shake off its stultifying staginess.
Notwithstanding some beautiful shots of the Seine and Notre Dame at night and a few perfunctory shots of the olde worlde neighbourhood where the battleground is set, all of the scenes of any import take place in Mathilde’s living room or kitchen.
There are more close-ups than is necessary – we know how well these veterans can do various emotions without having the camera constantly zooming in on their dials – and, as more information is revealed about the past, you can’t help but feel that the outcome is predictable earlier than it should be.
It simmers without coming to the boil.
~ John Campbell