Like its protagonist, Mr. Morgan’s Last Love lies in wait, gazing weakly in the distance for something that will snap it from its ennui, but nothing comes. There is a feeling of anticipation and then disappointment upon realizing that this is all. Two hours of notes and snapshots but no tangible relationships to hang on to, no sense really of having journeyed anywhere.
Writer-director Sandra Nettelbeck opts for the slow road, which suits the material. After the recent death of his wife (Jane Alexander), retired philosophy professor Matthew Morgan (Michael Caine) retreats from life. He goes about his daily routine but with no hope or pleasure. His loneliness is punctuated by the fact that he is living in France, where he had retired with his wife, and stubbornly refuses to adjust to the culture. When he does sling around a few words of French, he pitches them up with stereotypical American reluctance. He also isn’t keen on befriending any locals, and his only social relationship is with language partner Colette (Anne Alvaro), until he meets cha-cha instructor Pauline (Clémence Poésy) on the bus. She is a breath of fresh air for him in that he literally cracks wide the windows of his apartment to let in the sunshine.
Pairing a suicidal widower with a young dance teacher is a good formula that taps into generational differences to uncover some shared life truths, but it works best when that relationship is given some definition. Pauline initially takes to Matthew as a young woman befriending an old man, and he has a measure of accomplishment and stability that she lacks. But there are hints of something romantic at times and equally shades of an intimate father-daughter bond. The latter is an interesting angle to explore, and their compatibility contrasts sharply with that of Matthew and his son, Miles (Justin Kirk), and daughter (Gillian Anderson), who don’t make a great effort to hide their animosity towards their father or his new companion.
Nettelbeck seems to like and want this uncertainty, but the messiness spills into the storytelling. At times, the film splinters off into a possible relationship between Pauline and Miles. Meanwhile, the ghost of Matthew’s wife intermittently surfaces, focusing the story on the family’s discord and shunting Pauline to the sidelines. Matthew’s poor parenting skills, his wife’s decision to stay abroad during her illness, and Matthew’s refusal to move back to America all create noisy diversions. In the end, watching the film is a little like getting lost on the streets of Paris and realizing too late that you’ve just been going in circles.
Caine’s grumpy Mr. Morgan can be distracting as well, with his uneven American accent on level with his character’s French one. But the actor, turtle-like in this role, hits most of the right notes as a grieving, sometimes curmudgeonly man whom you could both comfort and throttle. Poésy is also well cast and conveys a lot of her character’s tenderness despite the uneven script. At least the view is lovely, and cinematographer Michael Bertle ensures that his images are sun-kissed and scrubbed, as if every frame has been freshly misted with a washed-out Instagram filter. Paris looks like a placid oasis despite the personal tempests.
Alt Title: Last Love
Prod: Astrid Kahmke, Frank Kaminski, Phillip Kreuzer, Ulrich Stiehm
Dir: Sandra Nettelbeck
Writer: Sandra Nettelbeck
Cast: Michael Caine, Clémence Poésy, Gillian Anderson, Justin Kirk, Jane Alexander, Anne Alvaro
Time: 116 min
Lang: English, French