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The odd couple: (l-r) Cruz and Kingsley in Elegy.

September Song

By Laura Leon

Elegy

Directed by Isabel Coixet

 

Philip Roth is one of those rare respected authors who flat-out leaves me cold. His characters just seem to come from an entirely different worldview, one whose origins, backstory and trajectories are light years away from my own. So I was taken aback by how moved I was by Roth’s protagonist, David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley), in Elegy, the film adaptation of The Dying Animal.

As directed by Isabel Coixet, Elegy transcends the heavy male angst of Roth’s written word, and brings it to a more universal level of pain and loss; above all else, it is a reverie on aging. Kepesh is the kind of university professor and author who makes for great Terry Gross interviews, for those who might actually like Fresh Air. He’s magnetic, brilliant and, at 64, fully aware of his diminishing stock in the romance department. He enjoys a once-every-while coupling with Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson), a successful career woman who’s only too happy to compartmentalize work and sex, and frequent chats with best friend George (Dennis Hopper), who coaches him on how to leave relationships with a shred of dignity intact.

All aspects of David’s carefully constructed routines fall apart when he embarks upon a romance with MFA grad student Consuela (Penélope Cruz). While he hopes for a great lay, what he gets instead is a relationship potentially rife with emotional riches—not to mention severe jealousy and insecurity. A scene in which he pretends to happen upon Consuela, who is clubbing with friends, teems with his embarrassment and our sense of his own folly.

Perhaps, because he’s played by Kingsley, David’s selfishness doesn’t seem as odious as it did (to me) in the book. Rather, it seems somewhat necessary, even rational considering what we assume about May-September relationships. What can a much younger, insanely beautiful woman like Consuela really see in such a man, and what chance for a happy future do they have? Isn’t David’s reticence at meeting her family, for instance, a form of protection for her, a way of not hurting her?

Coixet and her cast brilliantly shatter these assumptions, carefully building up an argument that living in the moment, allowing love to exist beyond expectations and social conformities, and partaking of whatever experience unfolds, is a superior alternative. Throughout, George’s wry commentaries serve as the Greek chorus of the audience’s thoughts, butting spiritual heads with Consuela’s desire to give and take with an open heart. Cruz matches Kingsley’s masterful performance, imbuing Consuela with heart, soul and age-defying wisdom. As life’s ironies take place in Elegy, and characters make their own choices, we are left to ruminate on the vagaries of life and loving, and to savor the prospect of having both, however fleeting.


19th Century Fox

The Last Mistress

Directed by Catherine Breillat

Catherine Breillat is the controversial auteur of Fat Girl and Anatomy of Hell, among other brutal and sexually provocative examinations of gender conflict. For her first historical drama, she’s adapted a “scandalous” 19th-century novel by Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly and given it the sumptuous-costumes treatment. The Last Mistress refers to Vellini (Asia Argento), the illegitimate daughter of an Italian princess and a Spanish matador. A former courtesan, Vellini is made respectable by her marriage to an elderly English baronet, but after the couple’s arrival in France, she doesn’t stay respectable for very long.

Ryno de Marigny (Fu’ad Ait Aattou) is an impoverished young libertine whose lush good looks have made him very popular with the titled ladies of Paris (newcomer Aattou looks like a prettier Michael Pitt with Jonathan Rhys Myers’ lips). On a dare from a friend intimately acquainted with Vellini’s tempestuous personality, Ryno tries to seduce her. He is coarsely rebuffed, but the rejection only intensifies his ardor. After a melodramatic encounter on horseback that leads to a duel between Ryno and her husband, Vellini is so inflamed by passion that she sucks the blood from Ryno’s bullet wound. This all sounds more exciting than it plays onscreen, despite Breillat’s reported enthusiasm for the source material. The tortuous, 10-year affair between Ryno and Vellini is shown in flashbacks while Ryno explains the liaison to the liberal-minded grandmother (Claude Sarraute) of his fiancée, Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida). Ryno’s engagement to this virtuous, demurely pretty, and wealthy aristocrat is the city’s latest scandal, yet the grandmother is convinced that their marriage will be a success, partly because she compares it to her own romances in the less-strait-laced 18th century. Whatever aspersions Breillat wanted to cast upon bourgeois mores is made irrelevant by the story, which is little more than an unusually explicit art-house bodice-ripper.

That the character doing most of the ripping is a woman hardly qualifies as gender politics, especially since the stridently unlikable Vellini is vulgar and aggressive—she slashes Ryno with a boning knife for foreplay. As played by Argento, she’s in high dudgeon almost all the time, except for when she’s being poisonously seductive. At one point Argento’s ear-shredding shrieking, the aural equivalent of nails on a blackboard, turns the movie’s most poignant interlude into campy histrionics.

For reasons all too apparent, Ryno no longer takes pleasure in her company. During his confession to Hermangarde’s grandmother, he posits several explanations for his inexplicable attachment to his infamous mistress; all of them are more compelling than the flashbacks to their trysts, despite the brazen nudity and Vellini’s flamboyant, Spanish-gypsy wardrobe (the art direction smolders even when the characters do not). But the desperation of Vellini’s desire—she debases herself just to be near Ryno—eventually shows up the tepid affections of his sheltered wife (Mesquida is as wooden as a dressmaker’s doll), and so their loveless affair continues as predictably as an NC-17 episode of Masterpiece Theater.

—Ann Morrow


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