Elegy is one of those serious dramas that always gets released in the cinema but no one ever seems to go to. An amazing cast, featuring Ben Kingsley, Patricia Clarkson, Dennis Hopper, Peter Sarsgaard and a radiant performance from Penelope Cruz mean that this adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Dying Animal is worth your time. {spoilers follow}

Elegy

There are problems though.

It tells the story of the ageing Prof. Kepesh, some kind of prominent literary critic at NYU. You know he is an important intellectual because all the Hollywood signals are there. He wears polo-necks, he drapes a silk scarf around his shoulders, he wears elegant long coats. At various times he is called upon to say the following names, Barthes, Kafka, Goya, Tolstoi, Valasquez, D.H. Lawrence and A.E. Housman. He even knows that Italians call Venice Venezia! So he is very clever, got that?

Plus, when he lectures, he perches himself half on the desk in the front of the theatre, engaging the students with relaxed, charming wisdom. When a teacher perches one buttock on a table in a movie, that is a neon sign saying “INTELLECTUAL”.

He has a good friend, George O’Hearn, who is the least articulate Pulitzer Prize winning poet you can imagine. He says things like “you have to grow up before you grow old”, as if they are aphorisms to be recounted through the generations. The characters all need to get introduced by clunky sentences. Thus we are alerted to George’s status by Prof. Kepesh saying, “For a Pulitzer Prize winning poet you…” His friend-with-benefits played by Patricia Clarkson says in her first scene “Well you try to be a woman running your own business.” The able viewer will therefore ascertain that this is a woman of means and success, not some desperate middle aged floozy in our anti-hero’s bed. In a conversation with her we are introduced to the Prof’s estranged son, “a well respected doctor, my son, the doctor, he speaks passable French”. The smart genes got passed on, see?

It begins with the esteemed Prof holding court on the Charlie Rose show. He says,

We’re not all descended from the Puritans… there was another colony 30 miles from Plymouth. It’s not on the maps today. Marymount, it was called. The colony where anything goes; went. There was booze, there was fornication, there was music. You name it. They even danced around the maypole once a month wearing masks, worshiping God knows what. Whites and Indians together all going for broke… [with this colony’s destruction it was the end of] sexual happiness, until the 1960’s when it all exploded again, all over the place…

And so the movie begins and runs through as a contrast between the restrained Puritan foundation of American culture and the yearning search for individualism that has marked Prof. Kepesh’s life. He left his marriage and his son in the sexual revolution to engage in the maypole dancing orgies of individualism. And now in the late Autumn years of his life he falls head over heels in love with the beautiful, captivating Consuela Castillo, a 24 year old student in his class.

Kepesh is committed to a world view whereby:

When you make love to a woman you get revenge for all the things that defeated you in life.

And yet as he pursues, seduces and then beds Consuela, his self assurance melts away and for the first time he is gripped by a jealousy that he struggles to understand. The man who has sought his whole life to live up to the counter-culture of the Marymount colony now finds himself trapped inside his desire to completely possess this young woman who is more than competent to hold him off. At the same time, he loves her. And she loves him.

Fundamentally, the problem is that he has wrapped inside himself after all these years of doing everything alone. No matter how often he hears her say she loves him, he longs with silent hunger to hear her say she “yearns for his cock”. The “cock-iness” of the ageing man is his undoing. In his late years he finally finds himself in another but has not got the virtue, restraint and trust to let the relationship blossom. Instead it dies. It leaves him dead inside.

Then George dies.

Two years on, he fools himself into thinking that he has “recovered my equilibrium and my independence”, but as he drops a squash ball from his hand he must confess, “who am I kidding?” His life has been wasted on a pursuit of independence that is shown up as folly in the light of this lovely woman who was willing to live life with him. He cannot own her however, possess her and use her. He is left alone. And ironically, still dependent.

The man who claims to be “such a realist”, has built himself a universe that is utter fantasy. It leaves him unable to reach out and commit to Consuela. The film becomes, in a sense, an apology for the Puritans, as they actually were, committed to fidelity and sacrifice and lives filled with permanent joy over transitory happiness.

Redemption of a sort ultimately comes for Kepesh. When it does, it comes from an imagined conversation with his dead friend George. Total devotion to one woman is no longer seen as “serving time” but as liberation. Lust transcends itself in love, so that it is no longer beauty of the woman as an object or accessory that he pursues but the woman who is beautiful. And without emptying out the plot, Kepesh painfully discovers that this beauty is something that persists even when the “outer shell” that George speaks of is cracked and broken.

Elegy is a spare, smart and melancholic movie about possession and greed and masculinity and age and lust and jealousy and friendship and love. It’s also at times inelegant, predictable and pottering. But its worth your while.

Your Correspondent, Time passes when you’re not looking.

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