Elegy opens Friday in select theaters
Isabel Coixet's Elegy is a movie for old men, made by a relatively young Frenchwoman. It's also a rainy afternoon movie, and it's quite likely to annoy women of all ages, no matter what the weather.
Adapted from Philip Roth's The Dying Animal, the film stars Ben Kingsley as David Kepesh, a Columbia professor and intellectual of sufficient public stature to draw obsequious chuckles from Charlie Rose on his show. Kepesh, we learn, has been a lifelong womanizer; he walked out years before on his young wife and son, and has been a relentless sexual conquistador ever since, even though he has spent the last two decades in an emotionally safe, friends-with-benefits relationship with Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson).
Kepesh is a man raging against the dying of the light—he knows he's old but he needs the sexual favors of young women to reaffirm his vigor. Enter Consuela (Penélope Cruz), a Cuban-born graduate student. Their affair begins at the end of the term—even a skeevy old professor like Kepesh has learned the boundaries of sexual harassment—at a party where he flatters her by comparing her to Goya and Velázquez paintings.
Their subsequent fling blossoms into a love affair, but Kepesh can't shake his lifelong avoidance of commitment. Love gives way to anger and jealousy, while Kepesh's resentful adult son Kenny (Peter Sarsgaard, good as ever) shows up, in desperate need of the fatherly guidance Kepesh could never provide.
Although many will have little patience for Kepesh's obsessive narcissism, more patient viewers (hence the recommended rainy afternoon) may identify with the universal fears of aging and loss of youthful ardor. Still, the film's biggest narrative problem is in its restricted point of view: Kepesh turns out to be an abject coward and remorseless liar, and the film never leaves his perspective and never lets us get away from him.
Nor do we really understand what his value is to Consuela (although the ever-more-formidable Cruz, initially unconvincing as a callow student, ultimately delivers a deeply affecting performance). Instead, the film assumes—as must Roth—that a hypercultivated old man need not justify his appeal to a young woman. Kepesh unburdens himself to his friend and conscience, a poet named George (Dennis Hopper), but we see no such scenes of Consuela. This one-sided narrative is probably easier to carry off on the page when the authorial voice is as persuasive as Roth's (or Nabakov's), but on the screen, the bar is set higher for Kepesh to earn our sympathies.
The portrait of Kepesh is acute and intelligent, but it's not a pretty picture and Elegy isn't for everyone. Indeed, as eloquent and thoughtful as Roth's prose is—much of it is retained in Kepesh's voiceover throughout the film—the bitter solipsism of Kepesh's worldview leaves us with a feeling of curdled joylessness.
It's interesting to contrast Roth's artistry—as has been often done—with that of Woody Allen. No stranger to the months of May and December, Allen nonetheless has wisely begun to take his alter ego out of his pictures. In fact, if it's still raining when you leave Elegy, you should get relief from the lightweight but sunny and empathetic Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a film that also features Cruz and Clarkson and is the work of a wise man who is able to let go of himself to generously recall the joys, trivialities and ephemeral nature of youth.