Elegy (Isabelle Coixet, USA, 2008)
Isabelle Coixet's Elegy looks like it wants to be profound, it looks like it could have been a good piece but ultimately, it's a clunky, clumsy film that insists on drawing attention to all its many faults. David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley) is an author and literary academic who prides himself on his sexual conquests of his young female students, until along comes the beautiful and classy Consuela (Penélope Cruz).
The film is concerned with beauty, fidelity, sexuality, aging, and death, i.e., pretty much all the big issues. The issues are tackled in a fairly heavy-handed manner, underscored by a less than subtle narration by Kingsley. It all feels contrived, melodramatic and theatrical, betraying its literary source material (Philip Roth's novel, Dying Animal). I haven't read the book and have no idea how faithfully it follows it, but it just seems to speak a different language. It's feels like a book translation rather than a cinematic event.
Cruz is actually a major distraction, whose casting seems to be pure exploitation of her celebrity, much as Catherine Deneuve was in After Him (Après lui). The film keeps telling us how beautiful she is when, quite honestly, I can't see it (and nor do I need to be told). It reminds me of the marketing of Julia Roberts. That Cruz gets top billing when Kingsley's character is the most prominent (the whole story is from his perspective) and he is the senior performer makes no sense. Coixet makes sure we get ample sighting of Cruz's breasts, which really are nothing special. It all seems a tad gratuitous.
The support cast looks good on paper, but none of the significant names seemed to be used to good effect: Patricia Clarkson's and Peter Sarsgaard's roles both seemed to be included to be true to the novel (not that I've read it; I'm just making an educated assumption here) but both their roles distracted from the main story. Deborah Harry also has a small role of little consequence.
The most convincing and interesting role, albeit short, is Dennis Hopper's George O'Hearn. O'Hearn is a Pulitzer prize-winning author, confidante, squash partner and sexual partner-in-crime of David. Hopper plays the role with more restraint than we're accustomed to, an intelligent, well-spoken man with a taste for young women.
Coixet was the principal camera operator which gives her no-one to blame but herself for the film's terribly distracting hand-held camera work. I often had to look away from the screen and watch with my peripheral vision, mostly at times when there was absolutely no need for it. Call it designer shake, but it takes me right out of the story.
Ultimately, the major failing of the film is a very week screenplay. It's inconsistent and doesn't maintain drama that the anguished characters should have been able to raise. The story gives a sense of self-importance but ends feeling hollow. I imagine it will be well-received by middle-class middle-aged arthouse audiences who will just love the play on sentimentality. After Coixet's not-too-bad My Life Without Me, it left me completely disappointed.