Thursday, September 4, 2008

Elegy (2008)


No matter how sophisticated or highbrow, it would seem that every arthouse-destined film depicting the life of those who populate academia that does not belong to the today risible lineage of To Sir, With Love to Dead Poets Society, and from Dangerous Minds to Freedom Writers and The Great Debaters depicts the life of the teacher in higher education and even the often tumultuous years of high school as a kind of glum, dismally joyless occupation. Perhaps it speaks to greater honesty in cinema this decade, or just the larger, trendy bitterness and cynicism that prevails in the “indie” world. Just in the '00s, films working partly as counterpoints to the happy, didactically predictable “classroom inspirational” tales that seem to come out every Christmas or January—extending to sports with Coach Carter (which was actually successful on its own terms with one of Samuel L. Jackson's better turns since the late '90s) to Glory Road to Gridiron Gang—films such as 25th Hour, or just this year's Smart People and The Visitor use the despairing “indie” reality of hopelessness and inadequacy the arts routinely finds in academia as “launching pads” for the bulk of their narratives. (The Visitor's sights are set on “inspiration” as well; Richard Jenkins' character's initial quotidian, disheveled appearance and spiritual vacuum are all present at the beginning to be drastically changed. It's a simple, rote drama but it shares with the more abrasive pictures such as 25th Hour the inversion of the teacher-as-mentor dichotomy as the conditions from which the narrative stems.)

Isabel Coixet's Elegy, based on a Philip Roth novel called The Dying Animal, is a pensively cheerless film with a selfish college professor named David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley) at its center. It begins with measured, graceful subtleness and concludes like a standard 1930s Hollywood melodrama. Kepesh is a cowardly, irresponsible fellow, but he remains understandable because he's not a hypocrite. He enjoys a lifestyle that includes a twenty-year relationship with a former student named Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson) based on, in her words, “pure fucking”—no sticky issues of the heart, no hurdles involving the entanglements of love, just... well, “pure fucking.” Kepesh intelligently pursues whichever female avatar that attracts his interest by hosting a cocktail party at the end of the semester, which as he says in voice-over is, “always a success.” At one such cocktail party, he speaks without the obligatory shield and formality of instructor to a most beautiful graduate student, Consuela Castillo (Penelope Cruz), who, at age eleven, immigrated with her parents from her native Cuba to the United States. Naturally, Kepesh's primary engrossment with the gorgeous Consuela is initially limited to the overpowering pulchritude the young lady so unabashedly possesses. Yet as he speaks to her about the arts, about life, and her, he comes to discover that she has a remarkable intellectual reservoir of insights and wisdom beyond her years. Most irresistibly, she has a sensibility and personality belonging to the “Old World,” as Kepesh tells his Pulitzer Prize-winning poet friend George O'Hearn (Dennis Hopper) while playing indoor racket ball. “She is a woman who has to be wooed,” Kepesh excitedly relates, noting one of the great differences between her and every woman he has previously encountered. Kingsley's performance is quite solid all the way around, but works most thoroughly when his cynicism is wedded to the buoyancy that rocks his character in the form of Consuela.

Representing something far more enriching than just a routine conquest for Kepesh, Cruz's ethereally otherworldly beauty is simply the spark that set off Kepesh's infatuation. What Consuela infuses in Kepesh is what Cruz infuses in the film: a liveliness, an unpredictability, adding to the proceedings a sensorial gauze placed over the aforementioned dourness that appropriately seduces the viewer while seducing Kingsley's Kepesh. What Cruz proves here is that she could very well be the new Sophia Loren, an enchantress whose statuesquely ravishing physical attributes and endowments are merely the most visually alluring complement to the arresting deportment and presence of the lady. Her impact here is almost ineffably crucial, and though a substantial amount of that impact is derived from the provisory of the character—Consuela's entry in Kepesh's life is singularly important—much of the harmonic lightness of the film is intangibly wrought with startling incorporiety simply from her being.

Unfortunately, Elegy is committed not to fully exploring what is a deeply fascinating character study-cum-ephemeral love story, but to completing story arcs that only drag the picture down—and drag it out too long. The film is less than two hours long but by the time it ends, the audience has been beaten with recurring motifs and supporting characters whose roles are either too small or too large for the sake of the picture's much more satisfying forefront with Kingsley and Cruz. When Kepesh pusillanimously defies the hopes and dreams of Consuela, Cruz's character is intermittently washed out of the picture, leaving us with only Kepesh, his friend George, George's wife Amy (Deborah Harry) and Kepesh's bitter son Kenneth (Peter Sarsgaard), who has never forgiven his father for walking out on his family. Uninteresting subplots play out in the center stage and one-dimensional characters such as George and Kenneth are given greater superficial import, without leaving much in the way of lasting impressions. The only side character who leaves a mark is Carolyn, performed with delicacy and beguiling charm by Clarkson, whose balanced reaction of hurt and understanding to Kepesh's betrayal of her with Consuela leaves an emotional and thematic mark on Kepesh and the picture. The last act of the picture drags on and on, making the film feel as though it is approximately twenty-five or thirty minutes too long.

Elegy is bittersweetly didactic in its own way. George serves primarily as a spout of mostly well-meaning and sensitive remarks—a few of which are achingly accurate (his pointing to beautiful women being “invisible” rings quite true)—and Kepesh is portrayed by Coixet and Kingsley as a man who learns a nearly invaluable lesson from his dalliances culminating in finding the love of his life, Consuela. As such, the film is very much a mixed bag. Kepesh confronts the realities that haunt, that penetrate deeply, irrevocably. In the final scene between he and Carolyn, he wonders aloud whether or not they have grown up—scooping that meme from his friend George, who instructed him to worry about “growing up,” not growing old—and, the meaning to the realization that he and Carolyn have never truly talked with one another in an over twenty-year relationship of “pure fucking.” Carolyn, ever the realist, notes that it's not such a bad record. She says she knows people married for a longer period of time who have yet to speak with one another with any frankness or openness... or at all. The epiphany that inspires Kepesh, that his experience with Consuela, begun as a base desire to “fuck her,” as he noted in voice-over during the very first phase of the courtship resulted in an actual flowering of mutual respect and love.

The truest point to the film is that every relationship, especially one of any considerable duration and success, finds its equilibrium in the give-and-take not just incumbent on two people attempting to mold their lives around one another but the very complementary exchange most paradoxically present in the love of people of vastly different ages and backgrounds. As an older, literate man, a culture critic and college professor, he gifts Consuela with intellectual passion and sexual superiority (Consuela notes that his admiration and appreciation of her body surpasses those of men closer to her in age). She indelibly injects youthfulness and contradictory responsibility juxtaposed with his older, cynically careless egghead perspective. Unfortunately, the relationship becomes too great for the sake of Kepesh, who, in a moment of uncharacteristic honesty, tells the woman for whom he jealously pines, “A future with you scares me.”

31 comments:

Sam Juliano said...

Again, a thoughtful and sophisticated rhetorical feast. I must say I completely agree with your indifference to the film, and your rightful assertion that at two hours its still a turgid experience. For me the melodrama is suffocating in the final reel, and Kingsley fails to resonate. Ms. Clarkson is indeed the most delightful of the thesps, and the films sub-plots simply don't work. I think you nauiled it here, both in summary assessment and in another astute an dall-encompassing piece.

Craig Kennedy said...

I'm trying to think of a time when Patricia Clarkson was less than great and I can't. She's not one of those people who inhabits wildly different characters from one picture to the next, but she always delivers.

You're the second person today I've read who noticed the depressed professor syndrome. I hadn't drawn a bridge between the films until now. I've sensed for a while (perhaps in myself or perhaps in the world at large) a feeling that intellectualism is its own dead end. Spirituality has long since stopped providing comforting answers to the meaning of life, the universe and everything, but rationality is also proving its own dead end.

I wonder if this is where some of the angst we're noticing in people that symbolize knowledge is coming from.

But I ramble. How to explain why I seemed to like it more than anyone else? I'm at a loss really. There was a nugget of truth to it and I liked the performances.

My least favorite aspect was George, the platitude spouting poet. He spoke truth, but it felt too pat and on the nose.

Anyway, nicely thoughtful review.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very kindly, Sam. For a film about such a dazzling person as Consuela, who does indeed leave a remarkable impression, it does ultimately become turgid--and of couse, only more so once that dazzling character leaves the picture for so long. And I did find the melodrama excessive "in the final reel," like you note, Sam.

Thanks again.

Alexander Coleman said...

Craig, thank you for your thoughts.

Interesting what you say about the depressed professor syndrome... I think there is a great deal of truth to that. Rationality, knowledge--they are very admirable concepts in their own right and people should be motivated to achieve some personal mastery of the mind, of art, history, culture, science... Yet the Enlightenment has in its own right led to much dissatisfaction in the last five hundred years, and I think it was interesting how the film seemed to posit from the perspective of Kepesh that the Puritans who came to America were responsible for the moralization of the country when it was still germinating, and yet the film concludes with Kepesh coming to the realization that his "loose" way, referred to as tomcatting by his son, has led to only greater disillusionment and sadness.

You're very much right about there being a nugget of truth to it, Craig. I think this film illustrates the difference between a film you relish because it captures the beauty of love--which this film in its own interesting way does--and a film that ultimately finds itself wanting to express certain ideas, at the expense of that. But as I say, you're very right about there being a nugget--nay, more than a nugget--of truth to it, and I give it credit for that, though I found the last act disappointing in its diverting from that brief, beautiful "truth."

Craig Kennedy said...

I think the melodrama might be the key sticking point between me and those who remain unmoved by the picture. Ordinarily that sort of thing irritates me to no end, but in this case I felt it didn't go over the top.

It's funny I find myself continually defending this film since I didn't really like it THAT much.

Craig Kennedy said...

Also, I think the spirituality vs. rationality question is one of the hooks that kept me interested in the film. Same with The Visitor to the extent that I liked that film (not as much as some).

I've pursued a rational path my entire life and at times I feel it wanting and empty. More and more I find myself responding to films that hit me on a gut level or have some vague spiritual component.

Not that I found that in Elegy, but Kepesh's existential crisis spoke to me a little.

Alexander Coleman said...

Oh, and I agree--Patricia Clarkson is always dependable. She made Carolyn into a fully dimensional character in a way the others among the supporting cast were unable to with much more screentime.

Alexander Coleman said...

Very interesting thoughts, Craig.

I agree that the perception of the melodrama doubtless has a considerable hand in deciding what you thought of the film. For Sam and I, it went too far, for you it didn't.

(MAJOR SPOILER) The second I heard Consuela's message, I was certain that she was sick. Like I said in my review, it just seemed like something from a '30s melodrama, and it didn't feel like an especially fitting component for this film, aside from the irony of her losing a breast, over which he had paid so many compliments. (END MAJOR SPOILER)

The existential crisis for Kepesh was definitely provocative for the first two acts. As angered as I was by his character at times, I understood him, too, and I think Kingsley did a good job of balancing the character's borderline neuroses and deeper psychological motivations.

I'm an avid admirer of cinema that speaks to me viscerally, or has an unqualifiable numinousness to it. Elegy briefly had something approximating that, but it let go of it--for me, anyway.

Sam Juliano said...

"Kepesh's existential crisis spoke to me a little."

Well Craig, that is a very good point, and one that more than ably backs up your summary assessment.

And I agree that the ending, which I compared in my review to LOVE STORY (I know you rejected this) is really what will decide where ones sentiments will fall on this film.

Sam Juliano said...

Yes, indeed, that previous point did not apply to the final 20 minutes.

Alexander Coleman said...

Yes, the melodramatic conclusion does remind one in some of its particulars to the ending of Love Story, Sam. Elegy gave that a twist, but like you say, it's not a tremendous difference, either.

Sam Juliano said...

The funny thing about LOVE STORY is that when it was released in 1970 people cried foul and were nauseated with the book's message "Love means never having to say you're sorry." Today, there seems to be more respect for the maudlin work, with the general perception that this was the forerunner of the kind of cinema that made some want to crawl in a hole and hide. Yet, there's no denying that the acting and craftsmanship of the film were noteworthy anyway.

Alexander Coleman said...

Well, I suppose Love Story, like "War and Peace," changes in the eye of the beholder as one's perception changes... The same applies to films and to masses of people and the general reception. Haha.

nick plowman said...

Ugh, I want to see this already! But, my bad, I missed the press screening. Darn it.

Alexander Coleman said...

That's too bad, Nick.

When does it officially get released in South Africa?

sarcastig said...

I agree with you completely, though my reaction to Elegy led to considerably less analysis (I just went with "Eh..." basically)

But on Patricia Clarkson: I saw Blind Date today, and while I'm not quite sure what to think of the movie as a whole (it suffers from a similar melodramatic tendency towards the end), she was absolutely amazing in it, and so was Stanley Tucci.

Alexander Coleman said...

Good to know we're evidently on the same page with Elegy, Hedwig.

And thank you for the note about Blind Date. My decision to finally see Elegy was largely based on the actors involved, and Blind Date is another film that inspires such a limited desire based on the performers. Clarkson is certainly one of the more accomplished actresses out there, and she makes it always look so effortless.

nick plowman said...

December, sadly. But I might see it before then, I don't know.

Alexander Coleman said...

When it comes to international release schedules, distributors work in mysterious ways.

Alexander Coleman said...

Question: did anyone else notice the visible boom mic in the scene between Kingsley and Hopper wearing nothing but towels in that bathhouse? It was just dangling above them. I guess the projectionist may have been at fault...

It made me think I was watching The Happening for a few seconds, though, haha.

K. Bowen said...

On a side note, what's happened to Peter Sarsgaard? He has such a low profile nowadays.

My distaste for the prevailing dourness of indies is quickly becoming a known quantity.

Alexander Coleman said...

You're right, KB--what happened to Sarsgaard? Shattered Glass should have made him into a star, but here he is still taking small supporting roles in "dour" indies.

Have you seen Elegy?

Daniel G. said...

Nice conversation after a great review. As you commented on my review a couple weeks back, we coincidentally both hit the depressed professor aspect and the running time.

One thing I probably didn't give enough consideration to was the screen time given to Kingsley and Cruz. You're right that when he rejects her, she's just gone, and it loses a lot of steam from then on.

I also agree that the fateful message was somewhat predictable, but of course that's easy to say in hindsight.

Alexander Coleman said...

Daniel, you're nothing if not a man of your worrrd, to quote the Joker. It may take you a little while but you always catch up with my stuff. Thank you! And thanks for the kind words as well.

The film really did sort of run out of gas when Cruz disappears. I could see some saying that that was partially the point; the wind goes out of Kepesh's sails, and it does for the film's as well, but it still was unfortunate.

Daniel G. said...

"I could see some saying that that was partially the point"

Wow, I never considered that. Interesting...nah, still doesn't work well enough.

Alexander Coleman said...

I had the same thought. If I were to try to play devil's advocate for this film, I'd go along those lines. But in reality, the film doesn't truly cohere to such a cogent arc. In fact, if anything the picture strains to become more melodramatic and "bigger" after Consuela goes away for a while, what with Kepesh's son returning, and Dennis Hopper's poet (MAJOR SPOILER) dying.

Oh well. It shows just how unhealthily obsessed I am with this stuff that I can think of counter arguments to my own points, and then counter-counter points to that.

Daniel G. said...

Haha, no it just shows how insanely sharp your analytic skills are!

Alexander Coleman said...

Ha, well that's looking on the bright side of things.

Anonymous said...

Just saw this one.

Didn't care for it.

But. Penelope Cruz is HOT!!!!!

Christopher said...

Beautiful review here, Alexander. I enjoyed this a tad more but it is definitely uneven. Cruz is one gorgeous lady though.

Eustace said...

This will not succeed in reality, that is what I think.
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