“Last Love” is a game between writer-director Sandra Nettelbeck and the viewer. The implied May-December romance between Matthew (Michael Caine), a hedonic retired professor, and Pauline (Clémence Poésy), a doe-eyed cha-cha teacher, is a treacly premise — and Nettelbeck knows it. Thus, she endeavors to subvert audience expectations while delivering the emotional goods augured by the title.
Nettelbeck clinches the former but stumbles with the latter. The late-life drama unfolds methodically, with Matthew first meeting Pauline at a Parisian sandwich shop. He lives alone in a colossal but dark apartment, ironically keeping sane by talking to his dead wife. When he befriends Pauline, who is less a character than female attention incarnate, he finally wonders whether there might be more to widower-hood than stamp collecting.
Halfway through the film, Nettelbeck pulls off her first narrative trick by landing Matthew in the hospital. That plot development transfigures the movie from a would-be romance to a family drama as Matthew’s adult children, Miles (Justin Kirk) and Karen (Gillian Anderson), rush to his bedside. Well, Miles dutifully does, but Karen breezes past them to the hospital window for a smoke.
When the buoyantly callous Karen exits the picture, a crushing gravity takes over, with Miles accusing Pauline of trying to shoehorn her way into his father’s will. This somber work about the worthiness of living has little life in it.
“Last Love.” No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes. Playing: At AMC Burbank Town Center 8. Also available on VOD.