'Elegy': Certainly Lamentable

David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley) is an aging professor with commitment issues who begins a relationship with former student Consuela Castillo (Penélope Cruz).
David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley) is an aging professor with commitment issues who begins a relationship with former student Consuela Castillo (Penélope Cruz). (By Joe Lederer -- Samuel Goldwyn Films)

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By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 22, 2008

What line is thinner than the one between confession and narcissism? And upon that line, exactly, does "Elegy" dwell, before tumbling off on the bad side.

Derived from Philip Roth's "The Dying Animal," it's the story of an older (late 60s) celeb professor (Ben Kingsley) and his love affair with a much younger woman, Consuela Castillo (Penélope Cruz). While it's entirely too tasteful to be boastful, the movie has a repellent smirkiness to it, so much so that boastfulness would almost be preferable to its high literary airs and insistence on solemnity. It labors to convince that Kingsley's character is "learning and improving" rather than just enjoying the hell out of what he cooks up.

As screenwriter Nicholas Meyer -- in another lifetime, he wrote "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution" -- adapts from Roth, David Kepesh has it made, New York lit style. The author of a well-selling classic art history text, he now lectures at Columbia, lives in an exquisite uptown brownstone and has a minor celebrityhood as a reviewer for the New Yorker. (Any comparisons with Roth are entirely voluntary, but completely inescapable.) He prides himself on never having affairs with his current students; he waits until the next semester to make his move. Again, there's something sort of repellent in the way he deludes himself into thinking he's noble but still uses his prestige and the docile captivity of his oh-so-easily-impressed target herd ("The New Yorker!") to leverage young bodies to press against his old one. When he's not in the mood even to hunt, a captive older woman (Patricia Clarkson) comes by to service his needs.

But Consuela is different. Why? Well, because she's played by one of the world's most beautiful women, that's why. The movie then proceeds to document their career, but entirely from his point of view. It doesn't care about her and, indeed, never really bothers to account for her life and her reasons for falling into a relationship with someone clearly 30 years her senior. It refuses to see her behavior as neurotic and by that means accepts his conceit that the relationship is morally appropriate. In fact, it never examines it from any ethical point of view at all, it wholly lacks rigor, and the drama of the piece -- the issue of commitment -- turns on him, not her.

David just can't commit, you see. His first marriage turned sour (it produced a son, played by Peter Sarsgaard, who may be repeating his father's mistakes in a thin subplot) and now he's afraid, particularly of younger women -- though, like any narcissist, he overworks in the gym to stay trim (and otherwise doesn't seem to work hard at all). Thus we enter his jealous mind, fantasizing about her other lovers, doubting her commitment to him, even following her and accosting her. But the movie makes sure we know it's because he can't help it, not because he's a jerk. And all the terrible things he does to her, like standing her up at a party because he didn't want to explain himself to outsiders? It's not his fault.

I suspect that his reluctance to commit has more to do with the fact that his life is rich in sexual possibility to begin with. Those goo-goo-eyed students clutching their New Yorkers with "Kafka: Enigma or Conundrum" by David Kepesh and brushing up against him in his post-semester bash? Who'd want to give that up? The guy's the Mick Jagger of Litsville, Manhattan, U.S.A.

The director, Isabel Coixet, brings a lush pictorial style to this stuff, so that it looks like a De Beers or Lincoln Town Car ad. Every surface shimmers, the warm rain beads on the glass, and Kingsley, in turtlenecks and leathers, strikes sensitive-macho poses against the mobs, trying not to acknowledge how damned attractive he is, how passionate with liquid fire are his brown, liquid eyes, how strong his hands, how flat his belly.

Of course death and near-death figure in -- not to introduce tragedy to David's life and again not to show that he too is mortal, but to demonstrate how noble he is about the misfortunes of others. When a friend croaks, the scene is really about David's strength and virility; when a loved one becomes ill, his behavior is again exemplary and we're to admire him more than mourn the ill character. There's just something creepy about it at some level.

Sadly, "Elegy" reminds me of the title of another great American writer's book: "Advertisement for Myself."

Elegy (108 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for sexual themes.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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