Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Elegy: sex not quite everything

Kingsley and Cruz make an unlikely pair in Elegy. It took a while to suspend disbelief in this romance/drama. Its protagonist, David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley), is a Literature academic, a lecturer in Practical Criticism at a New York University. Literature, art, photography, and theatre are his milieu. He is also a minor media celebrity.

The story is based on Philip Roth’s 2001 novel The Dying Animal, which I haven’t read. Kepesh is the latest in a long line of aging male intelligentsia who have libido issues. Self indulgence and total lack of commitment are their essentials.

He is a serial hedonist who seduces one of his mature age students, Consuela Castillo (Penélope Cruz). She comes from a comfortable Cuban American family. Kepesh sets his sexual sights high. However, he ignores all the old clichés: no fool like an old fool; be careful what you wish for, you just might get it. His motto: "When you make love to a woman you get revenge for all the things that defeated you in life."

His best friend, George O'Hearn (Dennis Hopper) fancies himself as the master of practical advice. He’s a Pulitzer Prize winning poet. Isn’t everyone’s life coach? He and David share everything, especially those things they’d never tell the women in their lives. At one of those inevitable New York lunches he outlines his theory that ‘beautiful women are invisible’. Beauty is skin deep. We don’t see it.

Consuela is far from invisible but we learn very little about the person beneath. This is not a story about their relationship. It’s about his coming to terms with their relationship. We never quite learn her identity, what makes her tick and why Kepesh fulfills her deepest needs.

The first person narration helps to expose the workings of Kepesh’s self-obsessed personality but is unnecessary at times and overlaps awkwardly with his confessions to O’Hearn.

Patricia Clarkson, does her usually impressive job as Carolyn, David’s regular sex partner of 20 years. She’s a former student of course. Patricia worked alongside Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Clarkson outshines her in both films. Nevertheless, Penélope gives a much stronger and more restrained performance in Elegy than in her Oscar winning role. Perhaps the members of the Academy were rewarding this effort that was not nominated.

Isabel Coixet’s direction is straightforward and conventional. She handles the carnal elements with restraint, given their profile in the plot. However, some of the cinematic devices are hackneyed beyond belief. David stands lonely in the NY crowd. The lovers stroll on a deserted beach and fade away. There was little sense of a fresh, original NY experience. Occasional and inconsistent use of simulated hand-held effects detracted and distracted at times.

It has taken a fair while for this film to reach Australian cinemas. We went with fairly open minds, as there has been little local publicity. Not even the prominent role of Penélope Cruz’s breasts seems to have stirred the mainstream media or perhaps there is just too much to compete with lately.

It’s a good film but not an enriching experience. It’s impossible to empathise with the main character. You just wish, as is suggested in the film, that he’d grow up and that the American obsession with old men and young women would move on.

(Thanks to Melbourne Writers Festival and Hopscotch films for the complimentary tickets.)

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