Elegy March 28, 2019
1 Hr., 51 Mins.
legy, from 2008, bears a familiar and questionable story — middle-aged college professor has an affair with a student, thinking it will be purely a fling, only to find himself falling in love — but spins it with intelligence and melancholy. In the movie, which is an adaptation of 2001’s The Dying Animal, by Philip Roth, David (Ben Kingsley) is the lecturer and Consuela (Penélope Cruz) is the student. David, a
divorced 60-something-year-old, is past the acme of his career but has settled comfortably. In addition to having secured a dream professorial job, he is also a regular contributor at publications like The New Yorker and NPR, and regularly appears on television in part due to his literary expertise. Consuela is a Cuban-American graduate student in her late-20s. While she is confident in her worldview, and is academically ambitious, she’s still unsure of herself by way of the intelligentsia.
When David first sees Consuela, who has registered for his class, he almost-instinctively views her as a sex object. “She knows she’s beautiful, but she’s not yet sure what to do with her beauty,” he tells us via voiceover narration. Intent on seducing her but well aware that getting into a sexual relationship with a student while teaching them is deplorable, he waits until the end of the semester to insert himself into her life.
The right time, in his mind, is at an end-of-the-quarter celebration he puts on for his students at his regal apartment regularly. He, to our initial dismay, proves himself right. Flirtations ensue; days later, David and Consuela have begun an affair, which quickly sours when David, unusually for someone who has grown accustomed to mostly being unattached in his romantic relationships, becomes obsessed with his paramour.
Unfamiliar with the source material, I was expecting Elegy to be a film perhaps in line with the ribald erotic thrillers of the 1990s, which often saw characters become so preoccupied with their sexual partners that transfixion might grow to become potentially dangerous. But a twist, which comes about midway into Elegy, reveals that the film is far sadder than your average tale of middle-of-the-road seduction and then what. The title eventually seems to be tipping a hat to an idea of elegizing one’s life — getting to a point where, even while you might be alive and physically healthy, the conditions which surround you are so stark and futile that you might as well consider yourself dead.
Isabel Coixet, who helmed the film, directs with clarity and painful near-nakedness; Nicholas Meyer, who penned the screenplay, does not besmirch the oft-taken-for-granted practice of letting characters let loose and talk. The frankness of the script is mostly invigorating, though it can admittedly teeter on the wooden. The uniformly shaded performances, then, are key to the movie’s efficiency as a character study. Kingsley is exceptional as a man struggling with the reality that a dent has been made in his lifelong commitment to no-strings-attached hedonism; Cruz, though provided with a relatively underwritten role, fleshes out Consuela’s vulnerabilities vibrantly. The supporting performances from Dennis Hopper and Peter Sarsgaard, who play David’s best friend and son, respectively, are stagey, and struggle to much overcome their symbolic virtue (Hopper as a personified devil on the right shoulder, Sarsgaard as a manifestation of always-lurking past regret), but Patricia Clarkson, playing a savvy businesswoman who has been enmeshed in an affair with David for 20 years, is slack-mouthed good — shrewd but still affectingly startled when she unearths the Consuela situation.
Her character, Caroline, also makes an astute observation late in the film that speaks to the feature holistically. Says Caroline, while sitting next to David on his living-room couch in the dark, “I know a lot of people who haven’t gotten that far in 40 years of marriage,” after he wonders if they’re talking, for real, for the very first time. The scary thing is, perhaps David has never even had a forthright conversation with himself. In Elegy, he seems to finally be having one, for better and for worse. B