by Tony Dayoub
The year's first serious Oscar contender, Elegy, directed by Spain's Isabel Coixet (My Life Without Me), is a fascinating character piece. Ben Kingsley (Sexy Beast) gives one of his most vulnerable performances as college professor David Kepesh, an egotist and womanizer left nursing a growing insecurity after starting a relationship with one of his students.
Consuela Castillo (Penélope Cruz) is the much younger student, a humble Cuban woman who is captivated by Kepesh's intelligence and mature mystique. But Kepesh is too self-absorbed to notice. Constant self-examination and guilt over his serial non-commitment to women (usually his students), have paralyzed him after falling in love with Consuela. He is certain Consuela will leave him for a much younger man, and his possessiveness starts getting in the way.
Based on Philip Roth's novel, The Dying Animal, the film is one of the most incisive readings of male-female relationships to hit the screen in a while. Writer Nicholas Meyer (and a great director in his own right) adapted the screenplay, like he did for another Roth novel, The Human Stain (2003). But Coixet shows a greater sensitivity to the material than the director of the previous film, Robert Benton. Roth's protagonists are generally self-centered intellectuals with little regard for women.
As Glenn Kenny states in his review of the film, the characters are a tad more sympathetic in the novels, where one is seeing the story from their first-person perspective. The same, some would say, repulsive actions that often occur in sexually intense relationships can seem subjectively different to individual readers, depending on what they bring to the material. While Benton, as a male (and often a bit of a dirty old man, in my opinion) may be attracted to some of the more lurid aspects of Roth's story, Coixet brings a softer touch. Kenny's review seems to imply it is because of her European nonchalance with sexuality (indeed he cites a Ben Kingsley profile in New York where Coixet admits this herself), but I believe it apparent that it is her very femininity that helps her approach the material differently.
Why else expand the role of Consuela (a thin one in the novel) to equal status in the film? Well, not exactly, because she still seems defined by the way Kepesh relates to her. But Cruz's portrayal elevates Consuela, and verbalizes all the questions and opinions Kepesh keeps to himself regarding his dubious respect for women. Coixet effectively softens the boorish behavior exhibited by Kepesh simply by showing Consuela, a fully formed female, a conservative one, falling for this jealous man, a person just as deserving of love as anyone is.
In a year top-heavy with big action films, one hopes that the fall season brings films with a longer intellectual shelf-life. Elegy is a good indicator that it will. Seek this one out.
Elegy is in limited release in theaters across the country.
Still provided courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.
This entry first appeared on Blogcritics on 9/5/08.