Isabel Coixet's 'Elegy', an adaptation of Philip Roth's novel The Dying Animal, is austere and snobbish at times and warm and relatable at others. Proof of which is no other than Woody Allen, films about intellectuals who 'educate' and sleep with beautiful girls are not scarce in Hollywood and beyond. This story is different. Thanks to Ben Kingsley's impeccable performance, Elegy has a captivating depth to it. It's a small story, and yet Kingsley makes it feel immense, only further confirming why he's one of the best and most respected international actors.
Kingsley plays David Kepesh, a professor, writer, and literary critic who has always, and wishes to continue, lived without committments -namely, has always slept around without forming any bonds with women. He got married, and got out just as quickly. But he isn't a bad man: he acknowledges his own impossibility to settle with one partner, and understands how people can misunderstand that. He has a certain regard for people. You can see it in his eyes. Yes, his practices are undoubtedly mysoginistic, but he is honest about them like someone who simply doesn't know better. Although I didn't like this character, I liked him. Kingsley's voice, his eyes, build and destroy David. He's perfect. David then meets Consuela, a beautiful Cuban student that he simply wants to sleep with... but, after a date to the theater, and after the first encounter, he can't help but asking her back over and over again. They discuss things, they go places. His determination to obey his lust -what feels natural to him- is still there. He falls in love with her, and she with him. Because he can't bear the feeling that this time he could, he would be willing to consider a future with Consuela, his fear pushes her away. Once again he's alone. And then I won't tell you the rest of the story :)
Elegy's great focus is the corporeal aspect of human beings. The characters' souls shine through their exterior thanks to Cruz and Kingsley alone. Paraphrasing what David's friend George, movingly played by Dennis Hopper, suggests to him one evening, it's of primary importance to look past the outside in order to really know a person. Elegy often ponders on the importance that David gives to the body, to lust, and that may drive him away from truly identifying that what he loves is what comes through the pores of Consuela. He is also very concerned about the decay of his body, the source of most of his happiness at the end of the day. He is self-conscious about his age difference with Consuela, about her preferring younger, more vigorous bodies to his, utterly ignoring that there might be something else to her affection.
As I said before, much of the power of the film resides in the strength and creativity of tthe actors. They do great things with their characters. Coixet is very inobtrusive, refraining from going overboard with unnecessary visual rambling or stylizing the argument too much -because it could've been just sappy. Elegy reaches a beautiful equilibrium. Maybe that can make it too passive for some, but I thought the coldness benefited it.
The film ends in a dramatic, although slightly optimistic note. Maybe there's room for reflection for the characters, but by the end of the film this story is no longer only about them. It's a dialogue, directed straight to you and requesting a response as the credits roll.