“Beautiful women are invisible” says Dennis Hopper’s character in Elegy. He’s counseling Ben Kingsley, who plays David Kapesh, an ageing critic and lecturer who falls in love with a young Cuban student played by Penelope Cruz. It’s a conundrum about which the whole film pivots. Beautiful women are anything but invisible. Cruz’s character, Consuela, is looked at, gazed at, stared at, photographed, desired, attended to and obsessed over. Yet the film (based on Philip Roth’s novel) lays out carefully for us the tension between being seen outwardly and being seen more fully, in all our vulnerability and brokenness. What is loving, after all, but paying careful and full attention? Can a man ever truly pay this kind of attention to a woman when he worships her youth and beauty and captivating Otherness and places her on the pedestal of magical sensuality, forever unreachable? Can such a woman cast in such a role ever feel satisfied and held, safe in the knowledge that she is loved for more than her enchanting eyes or magnificent breasts?
The plot is not wildly original: older man falls for mysterious and gorgeous younger woman but, unable to overcome his own deep fear that she will leave him on account of his failing body, tears himself up with the harshness of his own self-deprecating judgement, and inevitably sabotages the relationship. Or perhaps it is his longstanding fear of commitment that sabotages it. Or maybe it was that unassailable age gap. But of course it is him. And there’s the irony – that the man’s obsession with the visual and the carnal sets up a trap, for as his own body passes his prime, what has he to offer? “I was too afraid to ask her what I was to her,” says David, at one of the turning points in their relationship.
We can’t tell, of course, what either of them signifies to the other. No accident that Roland Barthes is invoked at the beginning of the first act, and again sometime in the third act. The film is full of neat intellectual references towards the great divide between sign and signifier. Consuela is likened to the subject of an Expressionist painting – a reclining nude gazing invitingly out at the viewer. Several times during the film she is photographed, and we watch her image materialise, captured in strange hues on the celluloid as her person has all but slipped away from David’s life. At one point, he and a guest on his weekly radio talk show congratulate each other on recognising that one may not own artworks – rather perhaps they own us. Yes, well. I found myself wondering whether postmodern critics would take joy in unravelling the film at this level, or simply find the cues a little heavy-handed. They couldn’t have been all that subtle for me to notice them.
The dualities work though to create a meditative, somber, aching sort of film. Youth and age, art and life, appearance and self, beauty that obscures while it reveals, undressing that in some way can never reveal enough, interpretation that constantly overshadows the artworks it seeks to illuminate. Kingsley, Cruz and Hopper each offer up sensitive, compelling performances that hold the story together and rescue it from flying away with its own intellectualism. The beauty of the thing is, quite simply, in the beauty of it.