“Elegy” - another kind of fear?

“Elegy” from a Philip Roth novel,
with Penelope Cruz, Ben Kingsley,
directed by Isabel Coixet.

Plot spoiler - subjective comments - literary cognoscenti stay out!

When thinking about this movie I am torn between its public reception, the critical reaction and my own experience.

For months I kept hearing about the film. Either directly from mostly women who had seen it already or overhearing other women talking among themselves with excitement about the “age difference affair.” Apparently an older guy (played by a famous actor) sleeping on screen with a much younger woman (played by a sexy movie star) struck a nerve. Then I went to see the flick. Walking away I eavesdropped and sure enough most of the comments related again to “the age thing.”

Than I read reviews. The majority of them complain about sanitizing the primal, raw sex Philip Roth novella “The Dying Animal”. All analyze the performance of the two protagonists. (Either raving or critiquing their performances mostly by comparing it to their previous achievements) All of that wisely, insightfully and convincingly presented, yet none of the above provided an explanation why this movie simply floored me.

Not having read the Roth's novella and not crazy about the stars (except Dennis Hopper who steals the show with the liveliest moment when he is ... dying) I just followed the story. It is a simple one. An affair is born and after a year comes to the end when the guy refuses to finally meet her family. Hurt, she leaves. The hero suffers. Then his best friend “departs”. The girl appears only to announce that she’s got breast cancer and that he was “the one.” Handkerchief please.

The question is why didn’t David Kepesh, the hero, go to the party given by his wonderful lover and in doing so didn’t announce himself socially to her circle is the crucial one. Most, including Ben Kinglsey, talk about the fear of commitment. The actor says that he had boiled down his role to a few sentences: “‘Once upon a time there was a man who couldn’t commit. He committed, and the thing he committed to died.’ Kignsely says he has carried this idea thorough the film.

I am suspicious of such interpretation. The Kingsley character seems cynical and manipulative enough to endure no matter how awkward an afternoon to keep an exciting affair going.

What if Kepesh doesn’t go to the party because he’s frozen by another kind of fear? Not the fear or commitment but the fear of death. What if the film is not a “soap opera” type of a story about the age difference in bed, but rather a howl of “a dying animal”? What if the most important element in this film (like in most) is its proper sequencing of strong events?

It is indeed a rare skill to time events properly. When done with enough power it can’t be overshadowed much even by possible inadequacies of film makers. Banal, you will say. Yes, just like death I will respond.

Those who truly know the answer to the deceptively simply question "what makes a sequence of events powerful?" live in Malibu. OK, in NYC. OK anywhere but well because their skill is so precious. So my hat goes down to Nicholas Meyer - the script writer and primarily to he who came up with the story - Philip Roth - “The Dying Animal” novella author.

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