Friday, September 5, 2008

Elegy: Love among the ruins

Elegy (2008) • View trailer for Elegy
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for nudity, sexual content and profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.5.08
Buy DVD: Elegy

His 1997 Pulitzer Prize and 2001 American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal notwithstanding, Philip Roth seems doomed — in certain circles, anyway — to be remembered for his scandalous third novel, 1969's Portnoy's Complaint, and for his ongoing obsessions with promiscuity and Jewish angst.
Mindful of sexual harassment issues, college professor David Kepesh (Ben
Kingsley) always waits until the end of term before throwing a party for his
students. He always hopes to find at least one who will be properly intoxicated
by his worldly presence, but gets more than he bargained for with Consuela
Castillo (Penélope Cruz), who, during their initial conversation, reduces him to
schoolboy clumsiness. Fortunately, things will improve from here...

And, more recently, for succumbing to a perfectly natural desire to explore tales of aging men indulging in affairs with much younger women, which puts Roth in the equally excellent literary company of, say, John Updike. One cannot really fault a male literary lion who, upon reaching "a certain age," worries about his increasing obsolescence. Eventually (with luck), we all will.

Elegy, exquisitely adapted by screenwriter Nicholas Meyer from Roth's short novel, 2001's The Dying Animal, is the saga of a celebrated man of letters and cultural observer who, thanks to the proximity to young people granted by his day job as a college professor, embarks on a passionate affair with a former student.

The encounter proves revealing in many respects: some anticipated, others quite surprising.

But branding this film as nothing more than an "old guy beds Penélope Cruz" fantasy is an unjust snub that overlooks some phenomenal acting, the core truths of Roth's story and director Isabel Coixet's obviously sincere desire to respect both halves of this May/December romance.

David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley) is, as he constantly reminds Consuela Castillo (Cruz), 30 years her senior. This seems all the explanation required to describe the apparent folly of allowing a pleasant one-night encounter to blossom into a relationship, but he's merely lying to himself; the truth of the matter — and we see this in Cruz's luminously expressive gaze — is that Consuela loves him and couldn't care less about the age gap.

He's the one with the hang-up, but the whole "age thing" is just an excuse.

Following an unsuccessful youthful marriage, Kepesh has spent the rest of his life trolling for deliberately short-term affairs, due — we're quickly led to believe — to his desire to live according to the sybaritic lifestyle that he believes is mankind's "normal" predilection. He repeatedly espouses this theory when interviewed, and during debates with his longtime best friend, poet George O'Hearn (Dennis Hopper).

In a film laden with revealing exchanges of dialogue, by the way, none are better than these comradely encounters between David and George. Kingsley and Hopper share a relaxed comfort that feels completely natural; we can't help wondering if this scripted familiarity is equally strong off-camera.

George obviously has David's number, and David knows it ... but puts up with it.

David fears intimacy and actual human contact, and believes himself incapable of both, because he intellectually insists mankind isn't wired for it. He admires early American hedonist Thomas Morton and has, in fact, over-analyzed the art of lovemaking to such an absurd degree that he has stripped love itself from the equation.

David acknowledges being "...very vulnerable to female beauty ... I see it, and it blinds me to everything else," and yet he refuses to engage emotionally when such beauty literally falls into his bed. In a similar fashion, and as one of this film's ongoing metaphors, David loves classical music and owns a piano, but regards himself a poor musician. (The richly moody soundtrack is filled with Bach, Beethoven, Vivaldi and Erik Satie.)

We know better: David could learn to play the piano, and probably quite well, just as he could learn to love. All one needs is willingness.

Or the proper catalyst.

That would be Consuela, whose European-style upbringing — she's actually Cuban — makes her agreeably receptive to David's initial advances. He expects this will be another short-term affair, but Consuela surprises him: She sees that he openly, unabashedly admires her body and her beauty, and she enjoys being admired.

In its own way, she recognizes, this is a depth of affection she'd not likely experience with a younger man; age may not have given David wisdom, but it certainly has granted him the experience to appreciate her in much the same way he marvels at the subtleties of a particularly gorgeous painting. He has good taste.

Would that he had equally good sense.

I can think of no greater testament to Cruz's acting skill, than to insist that she successfully sells Consuela's genuine affection for her frequently condescending older companion. Much like George, Consuela perceives that David is robbing himself of life's greater joys; she teases him about this, forcing him to question his very nature.

She also satisfies his curiosity about her previous affairs — and here we enter classic Philip Roth territory, not necessarily to this story's advantage — while holding back enough to leave herself intriguing.

More importantly, she does not tolerate David's lesser qualities. Having realized that he does, indeed, wish to continue this relationship, David now is haunted by the fear that she'll inevitably dump him for somebody her own age; to that end, he follows her one night, when she has other plans, assuming he'll discover proof of the worst.

"David," she chides, with obvious regret, when she catches him. "Do you wish to spoil everything?"

Life's important lessons aren't always passed from older to younger; sometimes it works the other way around. Consuela softens David's rougher edges, just as Cruz's delicate performance allows us to see Kingsley's character through her eyes. This is essential, because — let's face it — David's not terribly likable, particularly in the story's first act.

Granted, his friendship with George is heartfelt, and there's much to admire about David's appreciation for art and music, but the guy's an arrogant, self-deluding bastard.

Considering how we initially loathe David, it's therefore astonishing to discover, as this narrative moves to its unexpected third act, how much we've grown to sympathize with the man. Kingsley, too, is a consummate actor. The best films — the best stories — are all about characters who discover great truths about themselves; we can see the change, as this film progresses, as Kingsley allows David to slowly shed the armor of insufferable clinical detachment.

In a way, it's like we're watching the birth of a human being: one who takes an unusually long time to achieve actual self-awareness. But at least he's getting there.

The story includes two more important characters, the best of whom is Patricia Clarkson's fascinating portrayal of Carolyn, a career businesswoman whose busy life has served as a similar excuse to avoid relationship commitments. When she's in town, she and David sleep together: purely physical and uncomplicated sex. They have an "understanding" and make no additional demands of each other.

But there's a haunted, fragile quality to Carolyn's presence, which suggests that she perceives what she has sacrificed en route to corporate success. But it's too late for her to change.

The question is whether it's too late for David.

Peter Sarsgaard plays Kenny, David's grown son, a physician who hasn't moved beyond his deep resentment over his father's serial infidelities. Sarsgaard does what he can with his brief screen time, but we don't see enough of Kenny to form a strong opinion of whether this anger is justified, or indeed if his eventual behavior here is reasonable. Roth no doubt supplies a better backstory in his book, but Kenny remains a cipher in this film.

This is, make no mistake, a melancholy story about a lonely man who comes to realize, in this twilight of his life, that cutting himself off from actual emotions has been a grave error. Coixet paces her film leisurely enough to allow maximum impact for its quieter moments, as when David glances out his apartment window, almost in horror, at the sight of an older woman across the way, staring out at a world that she obviously feels has left her behind, and glimpses his own future in her resigned gaze: Ours is a society that abandons its elderly.

I won't say Coixet wallows in dreariness, but at times she comes darn close. One sad moment, however, arrives with a silent thunderclap and is certain to linger long after the rest of this film has faded: another testament to Cruz's frankly amazingly acting abilities.

David has spent the film photographing Consuela; his fascination with her beauty has re-awakened his desire to shoot and develop his own pictures. (Black and white, of course; he insists this is for artistic reasons, but this preference merely lends additional weight to the distance he maintains from his subject.)

As this narrative builds to its climax, Consuela poses again for him ... and you'll not soon forget the blend of wisdom, sadness and so many other emotions that play across Cruz's face. Coixet holds her camera long enough to capture the moment: It is an image destined to haunt for centuries, like the Mona Lisa or Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring.

And it proves, irrefutably, that we've witnessed a memorable character study that deserves far more attention than might be given by those who'd dismiss Elegy on the basis of their preconceived notions about Philip Roth.

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