In his essay, “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community,” Wendell Berry writes that the “voyeur cannot crack the shell”; to behold copulating bodies is not to capture sexual intimacy, the mysterious union of souls.
In the new film, Elegy, George O’Hearn (Dennis Hopper), a Pulitzer Prize–winning poet tells his academic friend, David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley) that, having given their lives to serial sexual relationships, they cannot break the “beauty barrier.” They are voyeurs who cannot “crack the shell.” Based on Philip Roth’s novel The Dying Animal, the final book in a trilogy devoted to the character of Kepesh, Elegy is an unflinching portrait of the voyeur as an old man.
A celebrated public intellectual and literary critic — who advocates an alternative history of the American dream, flamboyantly called “America, the licentious” — Kepesh targets one female student each term. Ever since sexual harassment became an issue on campus, Kepesh has been careful to avoid contact with students until the final grades have been posted. The latest delectation is Consuela (Penelope Cruz), a stunning, if unassuming and almost demure, Cuban-American student. In the film, which is never quite as blunt as Roth’s book, Kepesh entertains her at an end-of-semester class party with his witty and learned observations about Kafka and Goya. In a voice-over, he admits that his display of erudition is nothing more than a prelude to sex.
In Kepesh, Elegy gives us a certain highly successful academic type, common enough on American campuses, an academic who combines great intellectual discipline with rather loose sexual mores. What starts out as exuberant passion over time comes to infect the intellectual life itself. The result is an academic life permeated by vanity, wherein truth-seeking is subordinate to the task of drawing attention to oneself, to what and whom one knows. In the case of academics like Kepesh, intellectual prowess becomes an instrument of the sexual seduction of attractive students.
For Kepesh, who walked out on his family many years ago after concluding that marriage is a trap, Consuela is but the latest stage in his restless pursuit of his peculiar version of the American dream — the next frontier, the latest conquest. As he states, “Every time you make love you get revenge for all the things that have defeated you in life.” Lending erudition to the free-love moment of the 1960s, Kepesh contends that serial sexuality is more honest, and certainly more pleasurable, than marriage. As he puts it in one wrenching conversation with his bitter and alienated son, Kenneth (Peter Sarsgaard), abandoning the family was the honest thing to do.
Kepesh’s attempt to live honestly according to the flesh is, however, hardly an uncomplicated matter of freely satisfied desire. Again, Berry is perceptive: “Sexual liberation ought logically to have brought in a time of ‘naturalness,’ ease, and candor between men and women. It has, on the contrary, filled the country with sexual self-consciousness, uncertainty, and fear.” Lust, as C.S. Lewis once said, is more abstract than logic. So long as sex involves another human, entanglements will emerge. To protect himself and to continue to cultivate his lifestyle, Kepesh ends up lying to the two women in his life: Consuela and Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson), a former student, now successful entrepreneur with whom he has had regular commitment-free trysts for years.
As he ages, his carefree devotion to the “carnal aspects of the human comedy” looks more like a cover for anxious dread in the face of death. At the outset, he quotes Tolstoy: a man’s greatest surprise is age. Fear of death, loss, and loneliness plague Kepesh. Avoiding the snare of marriage, he finds himself trapped in an old age without affection and love.
Perhaps the most painful experience of all is Kepesh’s realization that Consuela has become for him more than a passing attraction. Sex with a much younger woman is one thing — an achievement. Craven dependence on a woman he realizes that he can “never possess” is quite another. The age difference is now shameful and his jealousy, pathetic. Fearful of his competitive disadvantage, he becomes obsessed with the younger men Consuela has known. As he coaxes details concerning her previous relationships out of her, he offers cruel and mocking commentary on the younger men.
One of the story’s surprises, whose credibility is testimony to Penelope Cruz’s compelling performance, is that Consuela has her own worries about whether she can secure his affection over time. She asks him whether he ever imagines their future together; a bit befuddled, he confesses that he is jealous. She responds, “Little kids are jealous of their toys until they get new ones.” He cannot believe that anyone could love him; his sense of himself as anything other than springs of desire is flimsy indeed. Kingsley’s impressive performance manages to make Kepesh, a character that could easily be simply repellent, pitiable, if not entirely sympathetic.
Many of the conversations resemble confessional literature; that makes the film painful to watch, as if the viewers were being invited to become precisely the sort of voyeur that Kepesh is. (Indeed, the film features a number of scenes in which Cruz’s body is on full display.) It is also painful because the performances capture so effectively the regrets, the guilt, the jealousy, and the timid hopes of the characters. The performances are really quite good and the dialogue is in many places impressive; the actors communicate very often through silence: the silence of shameful jealousy, of suppressed rage, of fear of loneliness, and of the horror of death.
The film shows the consequences of a dreadful reduction of imagination, even literary imagination, to fantasy. On this point, Berry is eloquent, “In sex, as in other things, we have liberated fantasy but killed imagination, and so have sealed ourselves in selfishness and loneliness. Fantasy is of the solitary self, and it cannot lead us away from ourselves. It is by imagination that we cross over the differences between ourselves and other beings and thus learn compassion, forbearance, mercy, forgiveness, sympathy, and love.” Having cultivated the fantasies of the solitary self, Kepesh, increasingly aware that his lust will soon turn to ashes, desperately seeks some other sort of human contact.
The plot delivers that other sort of contact for Kepesh in its final scenes. It is unfortunate that these scenes come off as melodrama of the sort featured on the Lifetime Channel. Although the film is on surer ground in its depiction of the angst of the aging lecher, Kepesh’s yearning is real. One wonders whether Kepesh, or the filmmakers for that matter, see that Kepesh’s transformation would involve a repudiation of the central thesis of his original philosophy, namely, that the human animal is never superior to sex.
– Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of Arts of Darkness.