Sunday, March 22, 2009

Elegy: Grade B

Elegy (2008)
Penelope Cruz, Ben Kingsley, Patricia Clarkson, Peter Sarsgaard, Dennis Hopper. Director Isabel Coixet.

How could a sensitive relationship movie with these stars be boring? You wouldn’t think it possible, but that’s what is achieved. A sixty year old college professor (Kingsley) is sexually attracted to a thirty year old former student (Cruz). That is believable, men being the animals that we are, but it is less clear why a gorgeous young woman would be attracted to a crusty old guy with a big nose. Her psyche is not revealed. There is a suggestion that the professor is motivated not simply by lust by also by an irrational, only partially conscious attempt to deny death by possessing a young woman. As the movie progresses, there is a hint that he really cares for her, maybe, so some character development is vaguely suggested. Cruz remains a cipher until the last act when she returns to him for solace. But since we never knew why she was with him before, it seems arbitrary that she would come back, so neither character adds up psychologically. There is no plot, so without characters, there is nothing, and that's a tragedy, because the themes of ageing, sexuality, and intimacy are rich veins of gold.

What makes this movie worth watching however is brilliant acting, especially by Kingsley and Cruz, but also by Clarkson. These are master players and you can’t take your eyes off them. Every moment of every scene is compelling, even if nothing is going on. Cruz shows her breasts, which was surprising. A case could be made that it was to demonstrate the old guy’s view of her as a body rather than a person, although with better writing that would not have been necessary. Photography is stunning. There are a lot of tight, intimate shots of conversations, with strong lighting and interesting camera angles. It’s a beautiful-looking picture. You could enjoy it with the sound off. Technical triumph in acting, directing, and cinematography cannot overcome lack of narrative content, but almost does in this film.

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