Good thing I didn’t know “Elegy” was based on a Philip Roth novella. I would not have rented the film since I find Roth whiny, self-centered and exploitative. But, filtered through a Spanish female director, Isabel Coixit, it is delicious. Things start right off with an interesting clip of the “culture critic” played by Ben Kingsley being interviewed by the actual Charlie Rose about Merrymount. As it happens, I know about Merrymount. Go look it up. Roth would have loved it. It’s in the pedigree of UUism, esp. in California.
Part of our fascination with an old man having an affair with a young woman is that in our culture it is considered disgusting, or so my students informed me when at twenty-one I fell in love with a man near fifty. Disgust, which is a pale form of horror and a dark form of social control, says that only the prescribed template may be used. Roth loves this disgust thing and has “played with it” all his life, so now he’s down to the idea of the “dirty old man.” And breast cancer addressed with surgery. Disgusting. Who can bear to think of it? And then the laughable trace of a child’s horror, when this old culture critic -- who knows everything -- hears from his elegant young lover about her early boyfriend’s fascination was watching her menstruate. Eeeuuugghhhh. (As the professor asks, “Just how does that work, anyway?”) But horror zombies are always close to laughable, unraveling as they stagger. Enough about Roth.
Reading through the comments on imdb.com, I see that this movie makes a pretty good inkblog [sic -- good typo] test. You already know my bias, which is “been there, done that.” Well, the May/December thing anyway. What I see in the movie is two people who make deep and intimate contact, symbolized but not exhausted by sex. They are impossibly separated, not just by age but also by culture. More than that, this is a man who is solitary. She is social. Their boundaries don’t match. The reviewers all talk about “fear of commitment” but that’s not it. Not ALL of it. Relationship can be a cage.
A person with an intellectual life one can share it, which is wonderful, but that becomes a problem if the other person is not in sync because of culture, age or goals. One of the readers of “Bronze Inside and Out” remarked, “I can see that one of the key difficulties was the liberal/conservative thing.” This man in the story already has a sexual life with a woman who has no interest in his intellectual life. It’s friendly and, though some will consider it morally disgusting, it’s managed gracefully enough until the woman hits her limit, which is competition. She’s a business woman: she wants exclusive and dependable.
It’s the relationship with his colleague that is truly intimate. Much is made of them being “womanizers” and “not growing up.” The secret truth is that to have an intense emotional connection through intellectual life is almost by definition not to grow up, which means (by definition) to put away childish things like playing with ideas in order to pay the bills, mark the events, socialize, and let one’s spouse become a support system, which he or she WILL try to turn into a capture mechanism. Both of the women in this movie do that. Women want guaranteed continuity, which is a way of saying “domesticity.” The Cruz character thinks that the Dennis Hopper character cheating on his wife is “disgusting.” But the Hopper character stays with his wife. He has as deep a connection with her as with his Kingsley friend. He kisses them both.
In fact, the Kingsley character’s own son (VERY grown up and playing the consoling father to HIS father, talk about age mixups) has his problems, too. He wants TWO conventional committed marriages with children and domesticity. That won’t work either. It’s not a question of escaping the damage of being a limited human -- the question is “where would you like your damage?”
Here I am defending Philip Roth who is a man one recently communicating lit prof would call a pathological narcissist liar. Well, we all are to some degree. If we can get away with it. And if we’re self-examining enough to even consider the possibility. Does it make it all right -- or even a little better -- if you admit it’s true? It sells books.
This is a very beautiful movie with sets in the espresso/latte/caramel mode (with ice blue) that has become fashionable. All the acting is superb. In fact, the story line is an old threadbare one. But the artful execution is dark chocolate rum truffle. Delicious. The deeper issue, of course, is universal. If you only have one body and one lifetime and one, well, “mind,” then how do you allocate it? What choices ought you to make? And some of the early choices will “entrain” other choices that you might not have expected. The awareness that makes the Kingsley character love the Cruz character is also the awareness that steps back in order to leave her free of his aging.
Throwing in the cancer is not playing fair, but it sure plays to the audience, and as the Kingsley character says, when you look at it from one point in your life it’s quite different from looking at it much later, because you will have changed. I mean, when I was an undergrad and later, I dearly loved fifty-year-old men because they were just to the point where they were becoming tender and a little more, um, “largo.” Now that I’m seventy-one, a fifty-year-old man is the age my child would be if I’d had children. In short, Ben Kingsley is too young for me because sexual old women are even MORE disgusting than old men.
This whole story is for older professional guys who have reason to interact with glamorous but intelligent young women. I haven’t watched many academic men try to work their way through these dilemmas (maybe Richard Stern, a friend of Roth’s), but I have closely witnessed ministers, which makes it even more potentially disgusting in a moral way. But even harder for them, because they know just how cultural and situational disgust is -- strict and yet a far easier moral measure than justice. Posters about sexual harassment don’t even come close to addressing the problem of betrayed children and estranged wives. And this movie presumes that everyone has lots of money. Hardly typical.
What the movie does defend is the phenomenon of falling in love with someone quite irregardless of age, culture, education, appearance -- there IS something that can make a connection between people that is deep, intense, instant and beyond definition. In the early Sixties there was a tall, slender, young man with glasses who had just sold a turkey farm in order to get a Ph.D. in philosophy. He walked through the door of the museum and I loved him. Right then and right there. I didn’t go with him when he asked. I threw away his phone number. I’ve often wondered whether he would read this blog some day. We are about the same age.