CINEMA: by Len Phillips (reviewer)News Weekly
The emptiness of a loveless life - Elegy
, April 18, 2009
The film Elegy is based on a Philip Roth story The Dying Animal (2002) that I read when it came out. My being at a time of life myself when age and ageing have become a serious matter, the novel made a melancholy impact.
|Ben Kingsley and|
Penelope Cruz in Elegy
In the film, the two main roles are, first, a 60-plus university lecturer and minor New York radio personality, David Kepesh, played by Ben Kingsley, and, second, one of the students in his English class, Consuela Castillo, played by Penelope Cruz. He is old and she is young, but that's not really what it's about at all.
Of course, behind the film and the novel is the author Roth himself, a serial adulterer and much married. The book and movie are reflections of a kind, whether they are actual considerations about his life as he comes nearer to his end, or perhaps just feedstock for a plot as he spins out another tale.
As always with a good book, the movie cannot quite spell everything out in the way that a narrator of a story can, since the story must be compressed into its 100 minutes. The opening of the book relayed in no uncertain terms the lecturer's cynical views on the seduction of his students, but I don't think it came across in the film with quite the same sense of predatory ruthlessness that it had on the printed page.
No student, Roth wrote, would be seduced until the final exams were complete, not for any reasons related to morality and conscience, but only to avoid the possibility of a sexual harassment charge later on. But once the term was over, he would throw a party at his home with the specific aim of taking to bed the particular student he had already fixed upon, usually on the very first day of class.
This had become more or less routine, but on this occasion he finds Consuela more dignified, more beautiful and more alluring than any of the others and he falls in love.
The rest of the film, like the novel, becomes a disquisition on life lived as a loner. It is about the emptiness of a loveless life and finally about the horrors of dying alone.
In the vicinity of the Kingsley character is, first, his son who is himself in the midst of an adulterous relationship while still trying to find a path to his father, from whom he has been estranged ever since his parents had divorced many years before.
Kingsley's attitude is that his was a marriage that could not last and, if the son was a casualty of his divorce, such is life.
There is also Kingsley's best friend, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, but also an accomplished adulterer himself, who continually counsels Kingsley to forget Consuela and get back into his previous rhythm. Find 'em and forget 'em is his sage advice.
Probably in the past, these would have been the very thoughts that had been in Kingsley's mind from the first with every relationship he had had. He is shown, even in his romance with Consuela, as a man of world-weary wisdom, entirely self-absorbed, uncaring for anyone else and interested in no-one else's problems but his own.
Yet it is he who is unmistakably the hero of the story. He is not portrayed as a monster, nor is his "suffering" intended to be read as a form of moral posturing. He is the victim of his own phoney morality through which he loses the girl because he cannot see her seeing him as a long-term partner for life.
He rationalises his reluctance to genuinely commit and refuses to meet Consuela and her family on the day that his lover has finally graduated.
She therefore throws him over and he makes no effort to bring her back. He prefers to wallow alone in misery than to have Consuela return.
The twist in the tale comes about because it is the young Consuela who ends up with a fatal disease and it she who is destined to die before him. She has now become older than him, as she puts it, and has returned to him to help her through her final days.
You reach a certain age, and then, rather than counting forwards from the day you were born, you start counting backwards towards the last day of your life. This becomes more pressing with each passing moment. It is Consuela who now must do the counting down.
Yet the film seemed to me to be not about her death but about his loss. It ranked, it seemed to me, three levels of potential satisfaction in a man's dealing with women in his life.
The film graded them from what it deemed as the least satisfactory to the best possible outcome, as follows:
First, there is a companionable marriage in which each remains true and faithful to the other.
Above that is sequential adultery with rapid turnover of personnel, but combined with a marriage in the background to provide some kind of stability and home-cooked meals.Love-struck
Highest of all, however, is to be love-struck by some gorgeous girl to whom no final absolute commitment ever needs to be given, so that one can always have an additional lover on the side.
I could not help thinking that the actual message beneath it all was a reworking of St Augustine's "O Lord, make me chaste - but not yet", along the lines of "Please make this go on forever so that I don't ever really have to change".
The part played by Ben Kingsley was that of a truly despicable character, but this is not, I suspect, the message an audience is expected to take home with them at the end of the film.- Film reviewed by Len Phillips.