Sunday, September 14, 2008

Elegaic? Yes, but. . .


Elegy will make you think, and it will make you feel, but I'm not sure it's a great movie. I would love to hear what others think.

Without being overly personally and so completely subjective, I will say that the movie struck a lot of chords for me: what is the nature of aging and age and what roles do aging and age differences play in romantic love? What is the nature of obsessive love (the Kingsley character, an aging but emotionally and sexually vibrant professor/writer/critic says of his lover (in essesnce), "I was anxious all day until we would speak and then I was I was anxious afterwards." And what is the nature of sex, romance, intimacy, long-term connection? It's all explored here.

I think about these things all the time; I have lived the situations in the film from all sides. And at the same time I have had, for many years, a negative reaction to one particular Hollywood formula: the on-screen love affairs between male actors in their 60's and actresses in their 30's. Pairing Sean Connery with Michelle Pfeiffer--or in the case of Elegy, pairing Ben Kingsley with Penelope Cruz, is quite simply playing out the masturbatory fantasies of the producers who finance these films. No doubt that the world is full of such romances, but how many times is it the reverse situation? So few: The Graduate, a smattering of others.

Okay, so trying to put aside my personal judgments is not easy nor is it entirely possible or required with this hobby (criticism). Even the Kingsley character David Kapesh says (advancing Roland Barthes' thesis): a book is a different book depending on the reader, and the reader will change such that re-reading a book 10 years after reading it the first time, the reader will experience the book through a diffent lens.

Still, that aside--I am really am trying to get to the point: is the movie good?

I just don't know. I have to think about it more. It's a story of Kingsley as an aging writer, David Kepesh, as I said, who falls in love with a student, Consuela Costilla, played by Cruz. He also has a lover who he sees regularly, the more age-appropriate Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson). He lies to Carolyn about Consuela, and never tells Consuela about Carolyn. He is almost estranged from his son, Kenneth (played by the excellent Peter Sarsgaard who needs a leading role, and soon--I love him) who can't seem to get over his past grievance--how Kepesh divorced his mother and abandoned him. And Kepesh has a best friend, George, played by, of all people, Dennis Hopper, who serves as Kepesh's Id in a way--encouraging him to go for the sex, but not get hung up on Consueala. And believe it or not we also have a cameo by Deborah Harry as George's wife--it's brief but credible. Yes, Deborah Harry!

Re-reading the paragraph above, I realized that, for me, the movie's interesting dimensions were in the relationships of secondary characters. Clarkson is a total favorite of mine, and she delivers another of her intelligent, subtle performances. And Sarsgaard as I mentioned does the seething, aggrieved son quite well--totally believable.

And the movie is gorgeously shot. Meaningful light and shadows, deep colors, sensual angles. It's beautiful, if obsessively mannered somehow--perfectly art directed, a little too perfect sometimes, but pretty to look at.

So what's the rub? As you all know I'm a huge Cruz fan. I can't get enough of her, but I have to say I did not like her in this role. I felt she was objectified, and I felt her stretching too hard to be a serious "actress." (P.S. to Penelope: you already are a world class, legendary talent. You have nothing to prove.) I thought the plot was contrived--you'll understand when you see how a certain body part of her is fetishized and then exactly what disease she gets. I thought her vulnerability was forced and her natural charisma was tempered. I found myself actually kind of angry that she was somehow used. Kingsley, on the other hand, played the role with sufficient depth and found many levels to his character.

I want to hear from others on this. What was wrong with Cruz's performance here, or with the direction? Why did the movie ultimately ring somewhat hollow? I've read zero reviews of this film so far. I'll be interested in your opinions, and the real critics.

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