There’s a scene in this film where Ben Kingsley’s character quotes Tolstoy, who once said the biggest surprise in a man’s life is old age. Kingsley’s professor can’t fathom how at his age he still carries on as if he’s twenty. His body has changed and he has presumably had his fair share of experiences… and yet his mind doesn’t seem to have changed or learned anything over the years. Much like this man I have a feeling that one day I’m going to wake up and realize that perhaps at the age of 65 it’s time to grow up.
David Kepesh (Kingsley) is a famed cultural critic, one of New York City’s celebrated intellectuals. His personal life is messy. Once married, the relationship spawned a son, Kenny (Peter Sarsgaard), who has grown up to resent everything about his father’s life. For the past twenty years, David has had a purely sexual relationship with a woman, Caroline (Patricia Clarkson), which is on a level that both of them find acceptable. One day in class, one of his students catches his fancy. Her name is Consuela Castillo (Penélope Cruz) and David carefully begins to pursue her. This beautiful woman, who looks a bit like the model in Goya’s painting “La maja desnuda”, turns out to be accessible to him in spite of the age difference; Consuela is attracted to David’s mind and confidence.
Their affair eventually grows deeper, but David has serious doubts regarding their future together; his best friend, renowned poet George O’Hearn (Dennis Hopper), tells him that he should end it. But David’s qualms have little to do with age. He’s about to repeat a pattern that has run through his entire life…
Some of the best actors around
Director Isabel Coixet’s most high-profiled film so far certainly carries some weight. The inspiration is a Philip Roth novel (third in a series starring Kepesh) and it was adapted by Nicholas Meyer who had also turned Roth’s “The Human Stain” into a gripping screenplay a few years back.
Some of the best actors around have been chosen to bring the characters to life. Kingsley, who can basically play any part, is very comfortable as the exiled Brit who has found success in America but still can’t overcome his basic fears; Cruz is seductive and ultimately touching as a woman who needs her lover to make a commitment; Clarkson, the queen of indie films, is perfect as the casual-sex partner who (as she points out to Kepesh) is every man’s dream; and Sarsgaard is convincingly seething with anger as the son who tries to do everything the way his father wouldn’t… but still can’t help falling off his high horses. It’s also a joy to watch Hopper as Kepesh’s outspoken friend who involuntarily ends up illustrating an important point.
The title of the novel is “The Dying Animal”, and that’s what we all are. Our lives are short and we should do what we can to enjoy it as vividly as possible. But there’s also a contradiction in the fact that more often than not we are unable to do so fully. We tend to make things complicated and allow ourselves to be trapped by bitterness or fears. The film studies the relationships between these characters intelligently and emotionally, and comes up with no easy answers. Coixet’s gentle touch is exactly what this elegy of a film needs and its melancholia is accompanied by little sad piano tunes.
I don’t know if it’s possible to change in a fundamental way. But perhaps it would be wise to make small changes before you hit 65. It may sound like a cliché, but this story makes it obvious that it’s never too late. Elegy is likely to appeal to all of us who know that we hold back too much.
Elegy 2008-U.S. 111 min. Color. Produced by Andre Lamal, Gary Lucchesi, Tom Rosenberg. Directed by Isabel Coixet. Screenplay: Nicholas Meyer. Novel: Philip Roth (“The Dying Animal”). Cast: Penélope Cruz (Consuela Castillo), Ben Kingsley (David Kepesh), Peter Sarsgaard (Kenny Kepesh), Patricia Clarkson, Dennis Hopper, Deborah Harry.
Last word: “Half of the world are men so we better try to understand them since they are not doing a lot to understand women. But I think it is a very universal story. The whole film is this man facing the fear of dying, the fear of aging, the fear of relationships. But I think the two women in the story – the one played by Penelope Cruz and the character played by Patricia Clarkson – they really know what they want and I think this guy who’s sixty-something, he’s acting like he’s fourteen and he’s thinking like he’s seven. That happens a lot in the world.” (Coixet, KPBS)