Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 47 min.
Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 1; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 3.
Our star rating (0-5): 4
Why is light given to one in misery,
and life to the bitter in soul…?
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother”—this is the first commandment with a promise: “so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.”
And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Mathias Gold (Kevin Kline) is as bitter as old Job, his longtime bad relationship with his recently deceased father apparently so warping his personality that he has made a mess of his life. He is entering his late fifties, been married and divorced three times, and has neither job nor any close relationships. When he comes to Paris to sell the apartment left to him in his father’s will, he has one more bad experience to add to his bitter memories of the father who had not cherished or respected him. What happens in Paris is foreshadowed by a graffiti slogan on a wall that the newly arrived Mathias passes, “Today is the shadow of Tomorrow.”
As he enters the old building and explores the rooms of the rambling apartment, he is startled to discover it is occupied. The 90 year-old Englishwoman Mathilde (Maggie Smith) has been living there ever since his father purchased the place and is not at all amenable to moving out. Upon consulting with a friendly realtor, Mathias discovers the peculiar Parisian “viager” that applies to the purchase and rental of apartments. Mathilde had once owned the apartment, sold it to the father for a small amount, and then continued to live there for a monthly fee—and cannot be forced out according to the law. The place is worth millions of Euros—Mathias even has an eager buyer, but has to place him on hold—so you can almost hear him calculating how long the old former bohemian has to live. Broke, he resorts to taking some of the furniture stored in the attic and selling it to an antique dealer.
Soon, in one of those embarrassing first encounters (this time in the toilet stall) Mathias is startled to discover a second occupant in his digs, Chloe (Kristin Scott Thomas), Mathilde’s middle-aged daughter who is a schoolteacher. It is hate at first sight, but of course, we know that this is a conventional plot device that will evolve into something more positive. Part of the enjoyment is watching these three damaged characters relate and slowly change their views of one another. Added to this are some wonderful views of a Paris to which Mathias, bogged down by all his troubles, at first pays no attention. There are two glorious views of Notre Dame Cathedral, one during the day and the other at night, that only a blind person would pass by without stopping and admiring.
Director/writer Israel Horovitz has given us an engaging story in his adaptation of his 1996 play about a man trapped by his past and thus dead to the present—Mathias even reverts to his old ruinous habit of drinking too much, which leads to his being robbed when he falls asleep beside the Seine. Slowly, as relations between him and Chloe warm up, she begins to sympathize with him, learning how the father had ill-treated him for so many years. He also sees another side of that father as he dines with and converses with Mathilde, who, it turns out, had more than a business relationship with the old man. She harbors nothing but warm feelings for the man whom she knew to be warm and loving. The father also had been quite a hunter, the apartment filled with the stuffed heads of his kills. One of them, the head of a wild boar that Mathias calls “a cow,” becomes the source of much humor in a scene in which he is in bed with it, and another in which he sticks an empty wine bottle into its mouth.
Near the end one of the delightful scenes affirming that the once embittered man is well on his way back to recovering his humanity is his visit to the home of Monsieur Lafebvre, the realtor. He is surprised that the realtor lives on a converted barge moored to a dock on the Seine. He declines the offer of wine (showing he is giving up his self-destructive drinking practice), but otherwise thoroughly relishing the visit with what is now a new friend.
I love character regeneration films because of their optimism that a person can change, though from a faith perspective this might not be realistic. Mathias seems headed for a better life, but the apostle Paul would say that he is still not yet free (see Romans 7:14-25), that until he is at peace with God he lacks the power to prevent his slipping back again into his old ways. Thus in regards to this being a visual parable of redemption, it is as open ended as the one in which Jesus featured a loving father trying to persuade his embittered older son to forgive his prodigal brother and come and enjoy the feast celebrating the wastrel’s return.