Elegy: Growing Up is Hard to Do

Every so often, we get a film about aging that touches a nerve in those of us of a certain age.  About Schmidt was one such film.  Savages, another.  Now in new release is Elegy, starring Penelope Cruz and Ben Kingsley, a film that captures what the word elegy means: a mournful, melancholy, or plaintive poem, esp. a funeral song or a lament for the dead.

David Kepesh, 70, successful cultural maven — the film opens with Kepesh (Kingsley) being interviewed by Charlie Rose — is dead inside, or very nearly so.  He teaches, he is interviewed and interviews aspiring new writers, and he struggles to assert the life force, expressed largely through sex or his own ’emancipated manhood,’ as he puts it.  His only friend and fellow writer/academic, George O’Hearn (Dennis Hopper) appears to be similarly stuck: sleeping with available younger students, and in his case, cheating on his wife of many years.  Kepesh is estranged from his own son Kenneth (Peter Sarsgaard), the child he abandoned in a divorce, and unable to give him support in his own marital crisis. He is in a 20 year affair with Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson in a glowing smaller role), enjoying great sex and fending off deeper commitment.

Into one of Kepesh’s classes and his life, steps the luscious Cuban emigre, Consuela Castillo (Penelope Cruz).  At a holiday party for his students, he seduces her with his erudition and worldliness.  They become lovers despite, as he points out, a 30+ year gap in their ages.  But she remains something of a mystery to him.  At one point, they examine Goya’s portrait of the Naked Maja and Consuela blocks out all but the woman’s direct gaze.  Who am I to you, she seems to be asking, a question Consuela will later put to David as they dine in a restaurant. Says George in one of their many man-to-man talks, “Beautiful women are invisible; we’re so dazzled by the outside that we never make it inside.”  The truth is, David and George haven’t truly made it to the inside of anything, and time is running out.

This is a film about growing up, and how it eludes us when we allow ourselves to be captivated by the surfaces of life: youth, beauty, success, sexuality, all of which pass, often before we are ready to let them go and find something deeper to live for.

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