Penélope Cruz? You decide.
I saw Elegy last night. It’s been around for a while but hadn’t caught my attention, mainly because I haven’t been paying much. These comments will be of interest only to readers who have seen the film, and might spoil it for someone who still intends to see it.
Middle aged men seducing much younger women is a pretty common theme in books by ageing male novelists, and is the theme of about seventy percent of French movies. Sometimes the older man is a sensitive and noble fellow (presumably based on the author), who despite strong misgivings just can’t help being a magnet for sophisticated and intelligent young women. Enriched by the fling, they both move on (he usually goes back to his wife). Other times he’s a manipulative old lecher in a morality play where both parties learn an unpleasant lesson. In either scenario, if the age gap is big enough, there’s no question of living happily together ever after.
There are also plenty of films and books about cynical young womanisers being reformed by upright young lasses who capture their hearts. But these guys are usually otherwise eligible. What you don’t often see is a manipulative old predator winning the heart of a gorgeous girl, and not only being transformed into a sensitive and noble fellow, but getting to keep the girl as well.
That’s what happens in this film. It’s already stretching the bounds of credibility that Consuela would have fallen for this smooth predator in this first place, even with charisma and celebrity on his side. Telling her she looks like Goya’s Maja? Good grief! The girl in the painting resembles Penélope Cruz no more than she does Margaret Thatcher. But even if you’re prepared to believe she could won over by a line like that, the story is still problematic.
The trouble with Elegy is not that it’s drab or pretentious. In fact substantial elements of it are believable and poignant, and I agree with David Stratton that Cruz ‘really inhabits this character’, in ‘a beautiful and very moving performance.’. The difficulty stems from the fact that, like so many films, it suffers from a blurring of themes. Is it about age gaps or about commitment? Consuela is frustrated because David (the character, that is, not Stratton) won’t commit, and that is indeed a flaw in his character. But, given the thirty-year age difference, should we see this as a cowardly and irresponsible stance, or a realistic recognition that there’s no future in the relationship? Having found himself more emotionally involved than he expected, isn’t it honourable on his part to refrain from demanding that she commit herself to him? He knows she ‘has her whole life ahead of her’, and would probably be better off with a younger man. He doesn’t go to her graduation party because he’s afraid he’ll be a laughing stock: on one level this seems pretty ignoble; on another, we all know that the people doing the laughing will have a point.
Whatever his motives are, the couple break up over this incident, and that should be the end of it. The experience has woken him up to the important things in life; perhaps, one might think, he can now find a suitable person to settle down with in his declining years. But no! Fate bestows on him a set of circumstances conducive to a euphoric reunion with Consuela herself. Alas, given that the age difference is still there, fate also exacts a pretty high price for this. Let’s face it: they wouldn’t have got back together if she didn’t have cancer.
How should we read this? Presumably the thinking is that David has discovered a capacity for true love, not just in the abstract, but in the particular person of Consuela, and it’s only with her that he can fulfil that capacity and experience the joy of commitment. He can’t, contrary to my earlier suggestion, fulfil this with just any old companion, and fate has given him a chance to do it with Consuela. The relevance of his age in this case is merely that it makes this opportunity all the more precious, since he’s running out of time.
Lurking underneath this pleasant interpretation is a more disturbing one — that this is an old man’s fantasy: the beautiful young girl ought to be out of his reach because she has her whole life ahead of her; the only way he can keep her is if that future is taken away from her, either because her life-span is shortened or because she’s disfigured in some fashion, to keep the playing field even (‘For the first time I feel older than you’, she says.) Revolving the metaphors: the bird’s wings are clipped to keep her in captivity; she is sacrficed at the altar of his needs.
Presumably the director Isabel Coixet is not in the business of giving life to degenerate male fantasies, and that isn’t how were meant to see it. The book is based on a novel, The Dying Animal, by Philip Roth, who may well have such a perspective, but to the best of my knowledge the book has quite a different ending anyway. Nor did the unsavoury undertones seem to bother any of the mainstream reviewers, who were all happy to pronounce it a great love story. Margaret and David, and Sandra Hall in the Herald, all gave it four stars. (By contrast, the local bloggers couldn’t see any redeeming features; their reviews were excessivelly cynical in my view, though Kevein Rennie’s makes some very good points.)
I expressed scepticism that a woman like that would fall in love with a bloke like that in the first place. There were a few other implausibilities that made the film less digestible. First, that he managed to keep his two girlfriends a secret from each other. Second that she had become estranged from her family for some unspeciefied reason: her close-knit, traditional family was, after all, the thing that made her such a fascinating trophy in the first place, and highlighted David’s own failure as a family man; but then this assumption is ditched when it becomes inconvenient — it suits the story line that she has no-one to turn to but him when she’s gravely ill. But the hardest thing of all to accept is that Ben Kingsley could be the father of Peter Sarsgaard, whose nose is only a tenth the size of his.