A widowed, elderly man living in Paris meets a lovely young dance instructor… what will happen next? Well, not what you’re thinking. At least early on, writer/director Sandra Nettelbeck‘s “Last Love” is actually fairly refreshing. It’s the kind of intimate drama that’s becoming rarer, one that doesn’t hurry to meet plot points, but instead invests time in character and setting, so that at least for a little while, the audience falls into the world of the movie like wearing an old sweater. But that mood only lasts so long and unfortunately for all of Nettelbeck’s smart choices early on, she can’t navigate out of them, and by time the third act arrives, the film turns harshly toward cliché, convenience and melodrama to disastrous effect.
Michael Caine plays Matthew Morgan, a retired philosophy professor settled in Paris, deeply mourning the loss of his wife Joan (Jane Alexander in flashbacks). Three years have accumulated since she died, and Matthew is adrift and lonely, spending his days pottering around town, sticking to an uneventful routine, with his decision to decline learning French (Joan had spoken for the both of them) leaving him further isolated. But a ray of light shines into his life when he runs into the lovely Pauline (Clemence Poésy) on a city bus. She shows him kindness, but not pity, and when she offers a branch of fresh-faced friendship, Matthew eagerly takes it. And the pair soon are spending time together, each filling a void in the other. For Matthew, Pauline is a warm companion in place of Joan and a presence in place of his children, who live in the United States, with whom he shares a contentious relationship. And for Pauline, Matthew is the father she never really had.
And at least for the first half or so of the film, “Last Love” is an enjoyable and leisurely trifle. It’s not high art, and not much happens, but that’s just fine as Caine and Poésy make an easy pair to spend time with. Their chemistry is a low-key fire, with the actors selling an unlikely but mutually rewarding friendship with ease, as Nettlebeck and cinematographer Michael Bertl bask in their picturesque surroundings. And even Hans Zimmer seems swooned by the material, delivering a surprisingly subtle score that’s a complete turnaround from the more speaker rattling blockbuster stuff he’s been cranking out lately. It’s mostly unshowy stuff all around, and for a time, it seems like “Last Love” will fully embrace its Euro flavour and step away from typically Hollywood cinematic conventions. If only…
Instead, an incident forces the arrival of Matthew’s children into the story, as they both land in Paris, annoyed more than concerned about the situation at hand. Miles (Justin Kirk) is harbouring a grudge against his Dad that has festered for years, while the appearance of what he perceives as a gold digger in Pauline, only further intensifies his sour mood. And vamping in a part that seems dialled in from a different movie altogether and threatens to overtake the proceedings, Gillian Anderson‘s Karen treats the entire situation as a logistics problem, one that time and shopping will solve. Toss in a holiday home in France that hasn’t been used in years, grown children trying to finally come to terms with a Dad who hasn’t been there for them, and a young woman who can only see Matthew as soulful perfection, and Nettlebeck’s film soon gets stuck in the very overly-plotted webbing the first half of the movie carefully avoided. And that would be fine if the choices weren’t so headsmackingly easy and obvious, and soap opera contrived.
“Last Love” ambles into a finale that tries to resonate with something resembling tragic beauty, but never earns that right. The darker notes of the movie are almost an afterthought, and are presented without any consideration to the deeper psychological underpinnings that could be fuelling them. Meanwhile, romantic developments are undercut by their simple convenience, and again, the narrative refusal to engage these characters beyond whatever they wind up serving as part the overall story arc. And it’s not so much disappointment that will greet viewers of “Last Love,” but a feeling of condescension on behalf of the filmmakers. It’s a sentiment underscored by the presentation of pretty pictures and ultimately one dimensional characters, that attempt to wrap up the movie with falsely bittersweet echoes, and hoping that we won’t notice and simply go with it. [D]