What makes a poem, a concerto, or an oil painting a work of art? Is it the craft, the symmetry, the aesthetics that renders it great, or must it be paired with meaning and significance? Mozart's Requiem is undoubtedly a masterpiece, but does the listener gain a keener sense of connection with its sorrowful tones when reminded that it was composed during Mozart's battle with a terminal illness? Can art be appreciated simply for its beauty, or is it richer because of the feelings, beliefs and conversations that lie beneath its surface? Director Isabel Coixet's somber new film Elegy explores the idea of looking past a beautiful human veneer to discover the magnificent human soul that dwells within.
Ben Kingsley plays David, a professional theater critic, literature professor and book reviewer. Well-traveled and impeccably tailored, his life is a perfect picture of modern success and high culture. Trick is, he's really a sloppy mess.
What David lacks in his life are the same qualities he prizes in the art he critiques—connection and permanence. Divorced and estranged from his adult son, the biggest constant he has is his philandering friend George (Dennis Hopper), with whom he swaps stories about his tomcat conquests of female students, and Caroline (a smoldering Patricia Clarkson), his off and on out-of-town girlfriend of 20-odd years. Their relationship consists of a few nights of randy fun every couple months, with little communication in between.
When Cuban graduate student Consuela (the beguiling Penelope Cruz) enters his life, David initially views her as another beautiful trophy to claim, but something about her possesses him, and their relationship continues far past his usual termination date. But in spite of his obsession with her, David cannot make himself commit to Consuela, preferring to view her as an object of desire, rather than a partner. Ignoring the age difference between them, she is entranced by his renaissance-man charms but yearns to couple with him emotionally and intellectually, rather than simply physically, and his refusal to do so leads to the dissolution of their relationship. Whether David can release his adamant sybaritic pretensions and learn to connect with the woman beneath the facade is the crux of the film.
Adapted from the Philip Roth novel The Dying Animal, the film retains the lyricism of its literary beginnings. Nicholas Meyer's script is poetic, poignant and appropriately restrained. This sort of film too frequently resorts to melodrama, but Elegy rarely makes a play for the audience's tears, only feeling a bit heavy with a final-act death immediately followed by another character's illness. Kingsley delivers an elegant voice-over throughout the film, but the tone is contemplative, rather than explicative, a gentle descant over the narrative's melody. Coixet's direction coincides beautifully with Jean-Claude Larrieu's cinematography, capturing both the intimacy and the disconnection of human conjunction. At one point, the camera sweeps across David's piano keyboard then similarly scans Consuela's undressed body, visually emulating David's equation of the two as instruments of art, reliquaries of beauty in his aesthetic fantasy. Dressed in an almost entirely classical soundtrack that utilizes the likes of Ludwig van Beethoven and Arvo Part, the film has a symphonic polish that allows it to progress glacially while speaking volumes. While Kingsley and Cruz deliver particularly effective performances, the entire cast is top-notch, with a surprisingly genuine appearance by Blondie frontwoman Deborah Harry as George's long-suffering wife.
As its title suggests, the film is a sorrowful reflection of a man who nears the final years of his life without a proper idea of what made it worthwhile. Where lies the greater beauty—in the execution or the conceptualization of a work of art, in the body or in the soul? Elegy gracefully achieves significance in both aspects, creating a remarkable film that is both handsomely crafted as well as intellectually and emotionally engaging.