Michael Caine, always a consummate actor, attempts to step up his game in Last Love, written and directed by Sandra Nettlebeck, based upon Françoise Dorner’s novel La Douceur Assassine. For the most part Caine succeeds with the cast in holding up this poignant tale about an older gentleman who seeks comfort through the company of a beautiful, sweet dance instructor with whom he develops a unique, quasi father-daughter connection and encounters a surprising time of self- discovery.
Caine’s American, retired Yale philosophy professor Matthew Morgan, lives in Paris. A father and grandfather, he can barely get through the days to cope with his wife Joan’s passing, even after three years. He is estranged from his grown up son Miles (Justin Kirk), and daughter Karen (Gillian Anderson, who is rather ill used in this role and should have been given much more to do.). Miles and Karen little understand the last days of Joan’s life and Matthew had made promises to Joan not to reveal them. Matthew lives a life of anesthetized indifference. He prefers the grey Paris landscape rather than return home to the vapidity of American life with his son, daughter and grandchildren in relationships that he never nurtured nor felt comfortable with.
Matthew’s static existence would have continued but for his chance encounter with Pauline Laubie played with grace and hapless longing by Clémence Poésy. An unusual relationship of warmth grows and surprisingly triggers his soul. He awakens to the realization of where he wants to be with himself and is stirred to philosophical wonderment about how this young woman who is drawn to him fatefully has some mysterious purpose that he can’t quite divine. For her part, Pauline is searching for the comfort of family, having experienced her father’s death as a young child. In Matthew she has found a father to care for and watch over. He becomes a substitute for family and helps to wipe out feelings of abandonment and loneliness. He is more kind and caring than the men she has had relationships with. She also enjoys the non threatening safety of his flattering glances, appealing smiles and quips to her wry and cute comments.
Pauline reminds Matthew of his wife Joan (Jane Alexander in flashback scenes.). She has provoked an intense threshold of pain and a new love (perhaps spiritual… it is not physical or sexual) where, before her company, he was “comfortably numb.” Matthew recognizes the fullness of the love of his life, Joan, and internalizes the abyss created by her loss. There is only one way to deal. He craves the solace of peace with Joan, rather than the living torment of memories about her. He acts on this yearning. His suicide attempt fails.
Matthew awakens to the hospital’s whiteness and a visit by Pauline. As she hugs him, Miles and Karen burst in on the scene. The result is comical. We get to watch Matthew’s forty-somethings act like petulant, jealous children. Miles’ need to protect his “senile” father from this golddigger reeks through his clenched, strained smiles at Pauline who is offended and abruptly leaves. Karen appears bored with her sibling’s reaction and finds the American way: drown her anxiety in a shopping spree. Her attitude shows magnanimity, actually. She has resolved that her father must live his life even if he wishes to lay it down and leave them to join their mother or be with this young woman in whatever way he wishes. Gillian Anderson’s Karen is appropriately superficial, yet hints at greater complexity and depth; this is Anderson’s superb talent peeking through the screenplay which fails this particular character. and is one of the faults of the film.
Matthew’s failed suicide attempt is the film’s turning point. It offers him a second chance to rectify wrongs and make peace with those who matter most to him and who reflect Joan’s love back to him though he wasn’t aware of it. In a respectful course of action, Karen leaves her father in the anxious and overly protective care of Miles. She returns to her children in America. Miles stays and confronts his Dad and who he thinks is his Dad’s mistress, Pauline. What he discovers about his father, Pauline and himself, and what Matthew and Pauline discover about each other and themselves is not necessarily a romp, but it is heartfelt, touching, sad and inevitable. Indeed, Matthew does discover how and why Pauline has come into his life.