Stories of a Past … Self-Hate or Liberating Truth?

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MY OLD LADY Film Review — The way any one of us lives with the past is a complicated thing. My Old Lady, a deeply psychological and sometimes shockingly honest film written and directed by Israel Horovitz, takes us layer upon layer into the kinds of deeply wrought emotional problems living with a difficult past can bring.

Matthias Gold (Kevin Kline) lives with his past misdirected in self-hate. Matthilde Girard (Maggie Smith) lives with hers in denial. Chloe Girard (Kristin Scott Thomas), Matthilde’s daughter, is coldly shut down. The past, as My Old Lady shows us, lives in all of us unconsciously.

My Old Lady is Matthias Gold’s story.  It’s his unraveling and his salvation.  His truth at the beginning is not his truth at the end. Truth can change, as I know so well in my work as a psychoanalyst. Especially the kind of hopeless and self-hating convictions Matthias lives with. And truth – surprising truth, life-altering truth – is what we find in My Old Lady. Hardly what Matthias expects when he goes to Paris to claim and sell his recently inherited large (and valuable) Paris apartment after his father’s death. Hardly, too, what we the audience can guess.

From what appears on the surface to be the story of an annoying situation with an old lady who has the right to live in Matthias’ apartment until her death under France’s viager system, we discover the complex reality of who this old lady is to Matthias’ father and to him. This is a truth he could let destroy him. But it is the truth that, in the end, helps Matthias put the past to rest.

Matthias’s past has caused him an old and deeply entrenched self-hate. He feels robbed: “Is self esteem a birthright?  Want to kill a kid?  Do nothing.” Nothing is what Matthias believes he got from his father, a father who was never home. At 10, he knew his mother thought more of suicide than of him. At 19, he came home to a gun in her mouth; a gun he couldn’t stop from going off. When you’re a child of such parents, love is a limited substance. Angry and hurt, he lives by the mantra: “If you do not love me I shall not be loved.” Many a child like Matthias comes to hate himself for needing love.

To be freed of self-hate, Matthias needs help. He tried psychoanalysis. The psychoanalyst told him: “Put the child I was on my knee and comfort him.  But, I keep having these dreams that that child I was is on my knee and I’m trying to strangle him.” This psychoanalyst didn’t understand the purpose of Matthias’ self-hate – directed at the love-starved child inside. He didn’t see that Matthias brutally silences that child if he wants or needs anything. This kind of psychoanalyst silenced him, too. A good and attentive psychoanalyst would speak to the lonely neglected child inside Matthias, encourage him to talk, be with him in his grief, his anger, and his hurt.

If, unfortunately, psychoanalysis didn’t help Matthias, help comes unexpectedly from Matthilde – with her blunt (if not insensitive and self-serving) honesty. She tells him the real story of his past – that she and his father were lovers since they were 29, that he was named for her. He begins to fear that Chloe (who he’s falling in love with) might be his sister. Matthias is finally privy to the web of lies built around his life and especially around love. Although he can now direct his anger where it belongs and not almost entirely against himself – is the truth more than he can take? Can nothing in love work out for him?

There’s a turning point for Matthias near the end of the film when he comes out with a gun. We know he’s furious with Matthilde who he believes is not only the one who stole his father and drove his mother to kill herself, but is now in his way of selling the apartment. Will he kill her?  Will he kill himself? He announces: “Childhood.  We should just let it go, but we can’t.  We’re cursed. Our pain tells us we’re cursed. I shot the pig.”

The already-dead pig is one of the large taxidermied animals that haunt the apartment Mathias has inherited, just as all his childhood feelings haunt him.  What might we make of this shooting the pig?  Could we say he’s symbolically shooting his dead parents and Matthilde – the ones who have eaten up his childhood, his life, his chances at love to this point? Or, is he trying to kill his own hungers for love as he always has – believing that love will forever be in too limited supply?

Or, more hopefully, has he finally dodged the bullet, so to speak, and stopped directing his hate and anger at himself? Has he decided to let the love-hungry child live? Chloe’s not his sister. They’re candid with each other about how their intertwined pasts affected them. They care. They share a full range of feelings. The myths Matthias has lived with from the past are dispelled.

As Matthias does everything possible in My Old Lady to claim his right to sell his apartment and, at the very least, get something from his neglectful father he, in the end, lays claim to something much more valuable – his life. He’s finally free enough of his past, and his self-hate, to love and be loved. The secret ingredient is truth.

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