Elegy comes with sophisticated cultural ambiance. Based on a novella by Pulitzer Prize winning author Philip Roth. A trailer peppered with interesting academic speculation. A score dominated by Bach, Beethoven and Satie, tastefully kept up to date with interludes of salsa or the eclectic Madeline Peyroux's singing Cohen's masterpiece, Dance Me to the End of Love. Gravitas imparted by Ben Kingsley as an established professor of literary criticism and his colleague (a remarkably suave) Dennis Hopper, award-winning poet. Elegy announces its colours by appealing to the culturally elite. Or at least those that can tell their War and Peace from Kelly's Heroes.
But translating the good and the great of literary acclaim into two hours of watchable cinema is necessarily a task of abbreviation, as director Coixet and screenwriter Meyer know too well, having previously worked together on The Human Stain. Pages of philosophical rumination rarely transcribe into pithy dialogue, circumscribed voice-overs, or the more visceral drama of visual image. Roth fans may come to altogether different conclusions based on subtexts gleaned from the novella. Even the rest of us may form radically different opinions. Each of us, as Kingsley's character would say, brings our own self to any work of art. We see it through our own eyes, situation, prejudices and projections, and it lives on well beyond our thoughts on it.
Do you dislike objectivisation of women in film? Penelope Cruz, the charming young student who comes into Kingsley's orbit, is relentlessly objectivised in the first two thirds of the movie. So much so that you may have formed a judgement by the time that objectivisation is finally questioned and the person behind the dazzling smile and art-book eyes revealed. Or are you perhaps a fifty-something year old single male? If so, you may feel more indulgent towards Kingsley's obsession and the film's emotional self-analysis. Or do you feel the more immediate revulsion for middle-aged teacher seducing pretty young student? Are you an art lover perhaps? Maybe picking up on the questions of how we perceive art, do we really perceive it truly at all (and maybe relate that to how people perceive each other). Only the most liberal viewer might ask if there can be any true love across the age divide, a true meeting of minds. And then apply those questions (and the underlying real perception of another human being) to the question of love when no age difference forces them uppermost.
The theme of professor-student illicit liaison is well-worn. So much so that it barely deserves a whole movie to itself. What raises Elegy above the bar is the seriousness with which it addresses its subject. Kingsley's character tries to stay a step ahead of the stereotype and what he perceives as inevitable failure, analysing it with his (married but unfaithful) friend Hopper. Belief in personal freedom is at odds with long-term meaningful commitment. After initially trying to dissuade him, Hopper comes out with an insightful key that can apply to other situations as well as Kingsley's. "Beautiful women are invisible . . . we're blocked by the beauty barrier." Like approaching a work of art, meeting another person is a case of seeing what we see (or want to see) in them. The Muse. The Blonde. (Or in reverse, The Cultural Man, the Tough Guy, the Protector, the Mentor.) Even before we add gender stereotypes. We see the sexualised side of a person we are interested in – or at least not a gender-neutral persona. Roth's point is that when we meet someone who is particularly beautiful or handsome, then it can become much harder to connect to the person underneath. Age differences emphasises this (Kingsley 'worships' her beauty). And the viewer is led by the nose to see her (objectivised) as he sees her. As "a work of art." As something beyond reach (emotionally in the long term, if not sexually). She is beautiful. She dresses well. She looks good naked. She's intelligent and attentive, with a sense of artistic appreciation. And she has a disarming directness and sincerity.
Kingsley also has an on-off sexual partner, a glamorous business woman closer to his own age (played by Patricia Clarkson). They seem well-suited. But it is late on into the film that we see that they too had only gone as far as the image they wanted of each other. "Is this our first real conversation?" she asks him. Then there is his friend Hopper. A friendship for which he only just manages the sense of 'elegy', the heartfelt sense of regret that has the power to correct and connect – if only there is a second chance.
And what of Kingsley's son (Peter Sarsgaard)? His appearance highlights one of the greatest weaknesses of the film. Kenny bursts onto the scene to tell his father that he has been having an affair – shock, horror! Kingsley, polite and fatherly, is really far too involved in his own dilemma to care that much. It reminds us that we have spent far too long angsting over who he is playing the double-backed beast with (a literary allusion which is given second-hand accuracy in the film, which attributes it to Shakespeare, who of course stole it from Rabelais). Unless we are voyeuristic, the question of who-is-shagging-who is one of the most uninteresting story lines for any film. But the emotions can hold some value if well addressed. Yet they are not here addressed with the depth of a novel. We have to make several additions ourselves, analysing the throwaway words of wisdom. The interchanges with Hopper have been underused. Too many viewers will have been lost gazing at Cruz's breasts. And the life-changing event that puts her and Kingsley on a deeper level is due to external circumstance rather than any astute self-analysis.
Elegy deserves respect for the heights it aspires to. But Coixet and Meyer need to make Roth more accessible to achieve the recognition for which they so yearn.