Deborah Ross

Worshipping perfection

<strong>Elegy</strong><br /> <em>15, London and Key Cities</em>

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15, London and Key Cities

Elegy is about an ageing professor (Ben Kingsley) and a beautiful young woman (Penelope Cruz), and it is based on the Philip Roth novel The Dying Animal, which, in turn, takes its title from Yeats’s ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, in which the poet describes his soul as ‘sick with desire/and fastened to a dying animal’. Elegy. Ageing. Roth. Dying. Sick. And yet this movie is such fun! Hats off to the director, Isabel Coixet, for infusing it with candy colours and setting it to a kitsch yet funky Seventies pop soundtrack. OK, only teasing. This is gloomy. In fact, I cannot remember the last time I felt so gloomed. It is a very brown sort of film and there is a great deal of piano tinkling.

Our protagonist is Kingsley’s David Kepesh, a celebrated cultural critic and professor at Columbia who is in his sixties and who has spent most of his life serially seducing his female students (but not the plain ones, as he worships physical perfection; I think I’d have been safe). He is a rutting stag of a man and wholly unashamed in this respect, a fact driven home by the candid voice-over which explains how he avoids getting charged with sexual harassment: ‘I never make contact with pupils until they get their grades.’ I do not think I’d fancy him — don’t you rut near me, old fella — but plenty do.

Consuela does, somewhat amazingly. Consuela (Cruz) is one of his graduate students; a beauty from a Cuban family. He seduces her and they embark on an affair which, for him, is different this time. This time he is haunted by the differences in their ages and his knowledge that it will not last. ‘This girl will never tell me she yearns for my cock,’ he says mournfully at one point. Well, I should hope not. (Honestly!) He is counselled throughout by his best friend, a New York poet as played by Dennis Hopper. ‘Beautiful women,’ says Hopper as poet, ‘are invisible. No one can see the actual person. We are so dazzled by the outside we never make it to the inside.’ I am sure there is some truth in this but, seriously, would you take advice from Dennis Hopper? I suppose one should always look beyond the casting, but it’s Dennis Hopper for Christ’s sake!

This is a film about diminishing male potency, ageing and mortality — business as usual for Roth, then — and what it would take for a man like Kepesh to open up to the possibilities of love. Can he love? He has failed to love his son who is now middle-aged and hates him. And he has failed to love his long-time occasional girlfriend as played by Patricia Clarkson, who now appears to specialise in sidelined, highly strung older women. Can he? Will he? Are we bothered?

Not particularly, no. I don’t think it’s to do with the acting, as both Kingsley and Cruz are rather fine. Kingsley has a big nose, a big bald head and a big grizzled chest which looks as if it’s been dipped in wire wool but he doesn’t ‘big’ his performance. His performance isn’t small exactly, but it is almost uncannily still and sparse. A shrewd way to play it, otherwise David would be a monster. As for Cruz, her dazzling, Audrey Hepburn via Sophie Loren beauty is enough to make you believe she could spin a man off his axis. The trouble is, neither character is that interesting. They may even be quite dull, particularly Consuela, who has very little to say about anything; doesn’t, ironically, seem to possess much of an ‘inside’ to get to. Still, there is lots of undressing, and Cruz does have the most wonderful breasts. I think I do fancy her.

All in all, the stillness of the performances combined with Coixet’s direction, which takes it time, and that bloody piano tinkling and tinkling away make it all rather heavy going; makes you feel as if you’ve just swum uphill through treacle. It may be too literary, too. Naturally, one likes a literary film — one prefers Mamma Mia, but even so — but this is too bookish in places. When Kepesh first chats up Consuela he tells her he is much taken with her ‘elegant austerity’, which just doesn’t seem like something anyone would say. At another point, Hopper as poet says to Kepesh, ‘You need to bifurcate your requirements.’ Well, don’t we all; don’t we all. But easier said than done.

This is one of the films you should probably see when it is raining heavily outside. Such weather would just suit it somehow. Candy colours and a Seventies soundtrack probably wouldn’t, but you know what? They could have tried. And it might have perked it up a bit.