It is instructive to remember that David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley), the professor of literary theory in Elegy, is the alter ego of novelist Philip Roth. The movie is adapted from his short novel, The Dying Animal, but the Kepesh character is also the protagonist of Roth’s The Breast and The Professor of Desire . In other words, we have the story of a horny professor who is capable of intellectualising sex. Perfect literary material for Hollywood.
In Elegy, director Isabel Coixet deals with an ageing Kepesh’s despair that as the male animal’s body ages, his sexual desire just does not let up. His student Consuela (Penelope Cruz), some 30 years his junior, falls seriously in love with him. Kepesh agonises over a permanent relationship with the gorgeous young woman and Elegy ends up as a movie about the sheer vanity of this lucky geriatric.
But Elegy is also about the problem of adapting cerebral books to cinema. A novel is a thought process unfolding and film is the sensual unwrapping of images. When you see Cruz, particularly her lovemaking scenes with Kingsley, there is a visceral reaction to an older man’s body in erotic embrace with a taut-skinned young girl. This wouldn’t happen in a book and the sex could easily be intellectualised and turned appealing.
The other problem is one of perspective. The viewer would be intrigued about the psychology of a young student who has no ulterior motive and loves a much older man. But Elegy is told only from Kepesh’s point of view, and it’s a vain, old-fashioned and boring angle.
But there are compensations. One is the emergence of Cruz as one of the finest actresses of her generation. Though Kingsley is miscast—his physicality is more cerebral than sexual—the film is worth a watch for scenes, particularly towards the end, when the emotional attachment between the two becomes very tender.