Saturday, October 11, 2008
Director: Isabel Coixet
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Penélope Cruz
Patricia Clarkson, Peter Sarsgaard, Debbie Harry, Dennis Hopper
When describing his approach to a woman as "I go yacking away mainly because I want to fuck her", you realize that David Kepesh (Kingsley) is either the world's most honest man or the biggest asshole.
Isabel Coixet's beautiful work in "Elegy" is delivered when she finds the balance between the two.
We learn that Kepesh is a divorced, celebrated author and culture critic whose most stable relationship comes in the shape of Carolyn (an affecting beautiful performance by Clarkson), his mistress of twenty years who always drops by for sex and then leaves for business.
He has become estranged with his son (the reliable Sarsgaard) after he abandoned him as a child and spends time talking about his conquests with his best friend and poet George O'Hearn (Hopper).
One day he meets Consuela Castillo (Cruz), a beautiful, intriguing woman who captures his imagination and happens to be his student. They embark in an affair (after the semester is over, the film isn't about academic scandals...) that then becomes something like love, until he begins to obsess over the fact that she will probably leave him for a younger man.
Based on Philip Roth's "The Dying Animal",the film at first plays like middle age male fantasy where you have an interesting, mature man who never lost his sexual charm finding himself smothered by the unthinkable love that comes in the shape of a beautiful woman thirty years younger.
Narrated by Kingsley with an tone and enunciation reserved for hard boiled film noir, the first part of the plot plays out like what an affair would play out imagined by a Raymond Chandler fan. Here David becomes a distrusting creature, always lurking in the shadows (even the ones inside his head) looking for the right moment to attack.
It's no surprise that during this time we also wait for Consuela to reveal the femme fatale we're convinced she has in her somewhere. Because as David assumes: everything that people will see in them is an old dirty man and a sly young woman trying to get something from him.
When Consuela insists this is love David panicks, taking the story into a path that alters his and our consciousness about age, feelings and mortality.
Because yes, among many things "Elegy" is about coming to terms with death (the opening monologue has David quote Bette Davis herself) but it doesn't pretend to make you settle with this idea, instead Coixet seems to draw from the now overused conception that "life is what happens when you're waiting for it to happen".
Kingsley of course brings a sense of self to David unlike any other actor could. Not only do you feel him connect to the character in a personal way (after old it's a well known film myth that it's the bravest of actors who dare to play their age) but he also gives David a backstory that makes him difficult, but not impossible to understand.
In his scenes with Hopper (which are probably the best in the film) Kingsley portrays the kind of comraderie that takes years to take shape. Hopper also is helpful in creating this sense of a masculine world that sometimes seems impenetrable for women.
If it wasn't for Coixet's delicate, even sensuous approach Roth's hero would stay at a surface level and it would be easy for the audience to decide he's either good or bad.
Her aid in this task is the ever more surprising Penélope Cruz who could've made Consuela a sex bomb, but chooses a restrained, almost ethereal approach and never lets her cultural background become a caricature.
Her performance is extremely sensual, but unintentionally, because she lets her character put a spell on us without showing it. She brings an emotional challenge to David that doesn't even need to rely on a third act twist that feels more like punishment than fate.
The film's major flaw might be the fact that it puts too much emphasis on events that should've felt more organic, but in these mistakes Coixet highlights the duality that has always made women and men so different.
She lets her mistakes be part of who she is and ignores the pride attributed to men who try to play everything like uninterested, unaffected heroes.
It should result ironic that it's a woman who was able to tap so well into the testosterone club of Roth's mind (just take into consideration the title change) to make it something deeply universal.