(2014) Dramedy (Cohen Media Group) Kevin Kline, Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, Dominique Pinon, Stephane De Groodt, Noemie Lvovsky, Sophie Touitou, Christian Rauth, Jean-Christophe Allais, Stephane Freiss, Nathalie Newman, Alexandra Chandler, Jocelyne Bernas, Delphine Lanson, Elie Wajeman, Michael Burstin. Directed by Israel Horovitz
Before seeing this film, I’d never heard of the French term “viager.” Chances are, you haven’t either. It is an actual thing, although I can’t imagine who thought this thing up. A viager is a French real estate transaction in which the seller remains on the property until they die and only then does the seller take possession. In the meantime, the buyer pays the seller a monthly fee. In some cases, the seller outlives the buyer.
Matthias Gold (Kline) is a penniless New Yorker in his 50s who has only three failed marriages and three unpublished novels to show for his life. That and a parade of empty bottles although he is on the wagon at present. He has inherited a gorgeous apartment in Paris (the La Marais district) with a lovely garden and enormous space from his estranged father. That and a gold watch. The apartment however has Matthias’ interest; it could be the key to his financial solvency. With every penny to his name, he purchases an airline ticket to Paris. When he meets realtor Lefebvre (Pinon) he finds out he could make as much as $12 million on the open market.
Sadly for him, however 92-year-old Mathilde Girard (Smith) is comfortably ensconced in the apartment and has – yes, that’s right – a viager contract with Matthias’ father. Which means that he hasn’t inherited an apartment, he’s inherited a debt. One that he can’t afford to pay. Madame Girard offers to let Matthias stay in a spare room until he can figure out a way to sell the viager. Madame Girard’s daughter Chloe (Thomas) however is not so sanguine about having Matthias there, particularly as she will be thrown out on her ass the second her mother shuffles this mortal coil.
Matthias though has a French developer (Freiss) lined up to buy the apartment – in fact, he’s already bought up all the other units in the building. His plans are to put in a luxury hotel or condominiums on the location and make a killing. Either way, there goes the neighborhood.
However, Matthias and Chloe – who detest each other – turn out to be much more closely linked than Matthias could have imagined and an old family secret resurfaces. Matthias is devastated by revelations made by Madame Girard and as his money dwindles down to nothing and time begins to run out, he finds himself in a quandary in which the right choice may be impossible to make.
Horovitz is in his 70s and has written almost 75 different plays and screenplays; this one is based on a 2002 play of his. There is a bit of a theatrical feel to it – there are really only three essential characters and most of the action takes place in the apartment. Horovitz does take us out into the streets of Paris occasionally and it is clear he has a love for the city – for example, Matthias while walking alongside the Seine discovers a female opera singer practicing by the waters. That adds the kind of charm that makes the city come to life for us.
He also casts this perfectly. All three of the main actors are among the best there are; Kline can be charming even when he’s an utter bastard (remember A Fish Called Wanda?) and Matthias often is, yet thanks to Kline we end up identifying with him anyway. Smith is beguiling as the occasionally befuddled but iron at the core Mathilde while Thomas, who has essentially become a French actress, makes Chloe very much her mother’s child.
Pinon may be best known to American audiences as Vriess in Alien: Resurrection but he has appeared in more than a hundred films and is better-known in France for his comedic acting but he is marvelous pretty much in everything he does. He’s one of those actors who enhances every movie he’s in.
There are some cliche moves here – the old saw of two people detesting each other so much that you know eventually they are going to fall in love – but for the most part this is compelling fare. There are some pretty rough moments here, particularly when Matthias tells Chloe about a horrible childhood incident, and the message is that the consequences of our actions can be far-reaching and devastating to those closest to us. It does take the plot awhile to unfold and some might not be patient enough for it. Still, I found this to be highly enjoyable and one of those lovely unexpected treasures that surface from time to time that come at you without warning. This is likely not playing anywhere near you for now but do catch it on home video when you can.
REASONS TO GO: A reminder of what a lovely place Paris is. Kline, Smith, Thomas and Pinon are always strong performers.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be a little slow. Utilizes the hoary “I-hate-you-no-I-love-you” cliche.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are very adult, and there are some frank sexual moments.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film as a director for playwright and screenwriter Israel Horovitz.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Good Year
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Gone Girl