Like its main character, David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley), Isabel Coixet’s Elegy isn’t an easy work to penetrate, nor is it easy to like. This adaptation by Nicholas Meyer of Philip Roth’s novel The Dying Animal is, however, quite the most intelligent film to appear in the recent onrush of mediocrity—and worse—that has closed out the summer. It’s also the most rewarding if you take the time to get past its rather off-putting surface—and that immediate groan at the prospect of “not another movie about an aging intellectual man and a younger woman.” Yes, it’s not that long since we were there with Starting Out in the Evening. But no, this is really not the same story all over again with different actors. This is something else.
Much of what I’ve read about Elegy has struck me as wrong. Some of the positive reviews have suffered from a tendency to gush. Is it a good movie? Yes. Is it “visually stunning?” Well, actually, I found it rather visually bland. The largely positive review from Roger Ebert seems to me to harbor a central misconception in the statement that Ben Kingsley “seems to be especially effective playing slimy intellectuals.” That’s true in and of itself, but it seems wrong here, since I don’t think Kingsley’s David Kepesh is ultimately slimy.
The story charts the romance of college professor Kepesh and one of his students, Consuela Castillo (Penélope Cruz), over what turns out to be a number of years. It’s an unlikely pairing from the onset—the bald, acerbic 60-plus Kingsley and the quietly reserved 30-ish (but looking younger here) Cruz. That, of course, is part of the story—not so much what Consuela sees in David, but instead watching David ask himself that question and wait for the whole thing to blow up in his face, refusing to let himself believe in the relationship for fear of being devastated when it ends.
David Kepesh as played by Kingsley is a self-construct. He’s clearly very good at teaching, and in the little we see of him teaching, he manages to pose nothing but the right questions about the relationship of art to the spectator. He follows a very deliberate pattern in his private life. He lives with nothing that isn’t tasteful. His parties reflect his complete civilization—from the sophisticated subtle jazz (at just the right volume) in the background to the coolly intellectual discourse (and pseudo-intellectual prattle) of the guests. In the party we see given for his students at the end of the class, it’s a case of Kepesh surrounding himself with his own creations in these young people. Like everything else in his life, the approach is designed to keep it all on a surface that serves as a protective veneer. He wants everyone to admire his suave urbanity, but not to actually know him.
Consuela is the exception to that rule. It’s not immediately obvious that she’s anything other than an unlikely conquest—a reserved young woman, who might be broken down if he compares her to a Goya painting. But as soon as that conquest is made, it becomes more than a conquest. David—quite against his will—becomes obsessed with keeping her, while being so sure that he can’t that he clumsily undermines himself at every turn. His sophistication proves worthless. He imagines infidelities that don’t exist. He does stupid things like showing up uninvited where he knows she’ll be—completely blowing his ridiculous “just happened to be in the neighborhood” excuse by having dressed so quickly that the collar on his jacket is askew and partly turned up. The professor—quite against his will and self-image—is like a freshman in the throes of first love.
His own insecurity constantly reinforces itself—with the help of advice from his friend, the poet George O’Hearn (Dennis Hopper in a surprising performance), whose own life is a string of passing infidelities that seem to exist mostly as something to allow him to bond with David over in cafe postmortems. (The film is very shrewd on this point, leading to a surprising, but inescapably right, final scene between the two men—one that’s left to the viewer’s interpretation.)
As a study of David and his relationship with Consuela—and by extension everyone else—Elegy is a penetrating, often uncomfortable, occasionally very funny work (you may never think of the oboe in quite the same way again). Only toward the very end, with a plot contrivance that—no matter how apt in context—squeezes toward a movie-of-the-week mentality, does it seriously err. But even this dubious judgment doesn’t quite derail the proceedings. As adult entertainment, there’s nothing around that can touch it. Rated R for sexuality, nudity and language.