<< Preface >> This is a first viewing for me.
I’ve enjoyed Ben Kingsley since my high school english teacher exposed me to the film “Gandhi.” He is a miraculous actor, multi-faceted, gritty, with a softness that I love in leading men. He seems perfect already, as he stands in his apartment facing a window watching the rain fall, telling us about growing old while we stare at the back of his bald head. I think it’s lovely when men who are losing their hair decide to shave their head. It’s insanely attractive. Especially in this instance. And since this film deals largely in part with the relationship between a teacher (Kingsley) and his student (Penelope Cruz who stars as Consuela Costillo), if you’re either a.) not into men with bald heads or b.) not into the teacher/student dynamic, get out now. It’s all downhill (or uphill, or…well, both) from here.
When at first our two leads meet, in a lecture Kingsley is giving where he says “Does War and Peace become a different book because we read it? Well, of course…once more, if you read the book again in ten years it will change again because you have changed,” I relax into the sofa. I’m think I’m going to enjoy this film. Let’s see if it’s true. “A work of art reminds you of who you are now.”
But, maybe I’ve spoken too soon, because there’s suddenly a cocktail party, and if you’ve read any of my previous film blogs, you’ll undoubtedly remember (because after all, you are hanging on to my every typed word) that parties typically make me nervous. Cocktail parties, especially so. Even more so, in this regard, because Penelope Cruz is there, drinking a glass of wine. People always mingling, talking about various intellectualisms…it’s somewhat tiring, but fascinating I admit. Particularly delightful is the Madeline Peyroux song “Dance Me to the End of Love” that plays softly in the background as Cruz and Kingsley speak privately, for what we’re led to believe, is the first time. Peyroux’s voice is simply the living end – take a listen and see if you don’t agree.
Gross alert (if you answered no to either of my film eligibility questions above about bald men and the teacher/student dynamic) – when Kingsley and Cruz are looking through an art book and Kingsley takes a quick whif of Cruz’s hair. Awkward, yes, if you’re simply undecided. And again while they sit on the stairs carrying on their conversation and Kingsley is squishing into Cruz’s side every two seconds as people pass them and he admits his true intentions. It makes the squishing a little less gross. After all, it’s human nature. And in the mind, nothing changes as we age.
Dennis Hopper and (I think I am going to faint because I didn’t realize she was in this) Patricia Clarkson also star. I love the conversation Kingsley and Clarkson have after their short, but steamy, love scene about Kingsley’s 35 year old son. There’s so much going on in this scene – watch Clarkson as she tries to read the details on a pair of theatre tickets she finds on Kingsley’s nightstand. Fantastic.
Of course, the tickets are intended for Cruz. And as the two of them stand on the curb outside the theatre afterwards, trying to decide to go to a bar or back to his place, is it just me or do both of them sort of teeter back and forth at each other as if they want to kiss? Adorable. I could watch people fall in love all day. She says she’ll go back to his place if he plays the piano for her. Which he does, rather stiffly, but to great effect because she’s lured to the piano bench where she sits next to him quietly. And I’m not sure how he manages it, but he makes even a small, simple metronome that sits atop his piano have a sort of sensual appeal.
It’s fun, waiting for these two characters to finally realize their undeniable attraction, but it’s only been one date and when Kingsley finally gets the nerve up to caress Cruz’s face it feels like a small eternity has passed.
Later, Hopper gives Kingsley a great pep speech about the importance of not worrying about growing old, but about growing up. It’s perfect to hear Hopper say anything of the sort, because while his face has aged, he still looks fantastic. Obviously, only people who are aging well can tell other people not to worry about growing old.
Wow – how many times have you wished someone would simulataneously, in almost the same breath, tell you you have a nice face and you’re a work of art? It’s never happened to me, or anyone I know, but I don’t keep company with the likes of Cruz, who, is, undoubtedly the most beautiful Spanish woman on the planet. Go ahead and try to argue. You’ll fail. I also dare you not to laugh when Kingsley asks, innocently enough, how many men Cruz has been with and she shyly breathes “Five. I’ve had five boyfriends.” Watch the wonderful micro expressions that quickly pass over his face…brilliant.
The film’s dialog is layered in a delightful way – some merely existing for plot advancement, others that exist for no other reason than to provide a sort of gentle lyricism. For instance, in bed, Penelope divulges some information about two childhood friends. And smiles, saying “When you’re 17 you’ll do a lot of things just to feel as though you’re moving.”
Everything about the film is rich in it’s sullen romanticism, especially as Kingsley and Cruz walk on the beach he’s taken her to in an attempt to break things off (before she breaks his heart) and suddenly, he’s holding her and asking if she wants to see Europe with him. Overcast, everything gray except for them in this embrace. Don’t we always promise everything when we are afraid of losing everything?
I find the scenes Kingsley imagines in his jealous moments incredibly humorous in their humanity. For in the end, you know it’s going to be him and this ridiculous jealously that destroys what is probably the most beautiful thing in his life. Self-realizing drama is sublime because you can so easily relate to it if you’re human and have a pulse.
The soundtrack for Elegy is at once haunting and defeatist, and while the piano instrumentals will chill you they ultimately bring too much attention to themselves instead of illuminating the scenes in which they fill. Music should frame a scene, invisibly architecting our emtoinal response to what we’re seeing. In this film, it’s overdone, but maybe I’m just feeling uncharitable because the music is making me depressed and it’s such a lovely afternoon as I watch this film.
It’s great when Hopper explains the “beauty barrier” – beautiful women are invisible. You only see the beauty, never the person. Knowing several beautiful women, and seeing the way in which the world meets them, this observation seems keen and it’s nice hearing it come from a man. This is Kingsley’s character in a nutshell. Maybe the “beauty barrier” can be expanded to films such as this, as well. The music, the women, all so beautiful they distract you from what’s really going on…
When, at last Kingsley’s David is about to meet Cruz’s family, I find myself wishing I could wear anything (seriously, anything, even a t-shirt or a pair of socks) as well as Penelope Cruz wears everything single thing she puts on in every single film I’ve ever seen her in. Of course, David never makes it to the party – he phones Consuela and makes up some lame excuse about his car being broken down. What an idiot. What are you, seventeen, David? When he gets back to his apartment, he hears the sorrowful message Consuela has left for him and for the first time I feel something like empathy for David. He can’t seem to get out of his own way long enough to make himself truly happy.
Peter Sarsgaard makes an appearance as Kingsley’s 35 year-old son and the two have a great father-son debate about adultery and marriage over some diet Coke and Maker’s Mark. I’ve never had one of those kind of adult conversations as an adult with either one of my parents. It’s fine with me if they only ever see me as their child. Some things should be internalized, I think. It helps the creative process to grow when it has something around which to fester.
It’s refreshing to know that a broken heart feels the same no matter what age you are – and if Dennis Hopper wants to come over and spoon feed me the next time my heart is broken, I’d love it. I’ll keep a key under the mat for you, Dennis, but you have to promise to make me something other than scrambled eggs. I prefer dry toast and Coca-Cola when I have an “unquiet heart”. I find the crunching and bubbling terribly gratifying and comforting.
The final word: Catch Elegy if you find yourself with a spare two hours on a balmy day and you feel like being uncomfortable, and sad, and generally woeful.