A movie called Last Love starring Michael Caine, who’s 80, and Clémence Poésy, who’s 31 (and best known for playing the teenaged Fleur Delacour in the Harry Potter movies), sounds unspeakably icky. Rest assured, however, that their relationship remains not just platonic but saccharinely idealized—a communion of souls between two desperately lonely people, one of whom isn’t even in his own country. Writer-director Sandra Nettelbeck (Mostly Martha) dedicates the film to the memory of her father, and it functions as a gentle, preposterous fantasy in which a grieving widower’s frosty relationship with his adult children gets repaired by a winsome French sprite. Unfortunately, Nettelbeck also strives to make Last Love a genuinely complex drama rooted in recognizable human behavior, and fails utterly in that effort.
Employing a hilariously twangy, come-and-go American accent, Caine plays Matthew, an expatriate in Paris who still hasn’t bothered to learn any French three years after the death of his wife. (She was the one who wanted to live there; the character is played in weepy flashbacks by Jane Alexander.) Consequently, he has no friends, and since he’s retired from teaching, and his family is in the U.S., he simply putters around by himself, apparently waiting to die. A chance meeting on a bus with a young cha-cha instructor, Pauline (Poésy), initially gives him a new lease on life—then suddenly inspires him to attempt suicide, her vibrancy having exposed the emptiness of his own existence. When his son (Justin Kirk) and daughter (Gillian Anderson) show up at his bedside, various old wounds are reopened, with Pauline doing her best to run interference—especially between father and son, who can barely stomach each other.
While not exactly the classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Pauline initially befriends Matthew—a random elderly man on a bus—for no discernible reason apart from the script’s insistence that she do so. Their subsequent friendship, by the same token, has no apparent basis in any cross-generational rapport, despite the best efforts of Caine and Poésy. Basically, they’re both nice, which Nettelbeck underlines by having Matthew’s two kids—especially the daughter, played by Anderson as a variation on Diane Keaton’s high-strung neurotic in Manhattan—be not very nice at all, though one of them ultimately proves redeemable. Watching Matthew attempt to learn the cha-cha and (finally!) a few words of French is passably endearing; when the film struggles to pass itself off as hard-hitting drama, however, c’est une catastrophe.