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There's a lot going on, thematically, in Isabel Coixet's Elegy. Based on a novella by Philip Roth, The Dying Animal, the film is a visual study of the everyday aspects of ageing, illness, jealousy and resentment — hardly an appealing nosegay of human problems. It is Ms Coixet's job to make this depressive material imaginatively appealing, and, with the help of her top-drawer cast and an ace cameraman, Jean-Claude Larrieu, she succeeds. What's so curious about Elegy, however, is the sensation that Woody Allen has been here before.

The effect is easily explained. Woody Allen is the only major American filmmaker to have made a study of a European filmmaker's style, and the filmmaker whom he studied, Ingmar Bergman, would have been not a jot less influential without his attention. Mr Allen, in short, has prepared audiences to take what has come to be a generalized European look at American life — at least, at its most European. It will be some time before the shot of a solitary individual standing at a rainpoked apartment window fails to remind the seasoned moviegoer of films like Interiors and Another Woman. But it will not surprise me at all if critics hail Ms Coixet's sophisticated reserve as an innovation.

With Vancouver standing in for the parksides of Manhattan, Elegy is a visual study in rich, dark tones that offset the expressiveness of skin. A good deal of this skin is cranial, belonging to Ben Kingsley, but we are also invited to feast our eyes on the breasts of Penélope Cruz, especially in one long, languorous take near the end. Very "foreign movies"! The subtly elaborate groundwork is characteristic of the film's methodical quiet. At the party in his apartment where David Kepesh (Mr Kingsley) gets acquainted with an ardently-desired former student, Consuelo Castillo (Ms Cruz), David shows Consuelo the image of a famous Goya, La Maja vestida. In his haste, he opens the book to La Maja desnuda, the earlier, nude version of the same famous pose. We see only a flash of it. David wants Consuelo to believe that the resemblance that fascinates him, between her and Goya's subject, is in the eyes. The slip of bare-breasted Maja suggests otherwise.

I have not read The Dying Animal, so I cannot say whether the novella demonstrates as powerfully as the film does the transfiguration of a man by lust. Consuelo ought to be just another pretty co-ed with a short-term easement on Kepesh's bedlinens. This is how his friend George (an excellent, surprisingly geriatric Dennis Hopper) sees her. George, a famous poet and something of a roué himself, urges Kepesh to "grow up," and end his affair with Consuelo before she, more shatteringly, abandons him for a younger man. The film is as lucid as it can be about David's predicament, caught as he is between the unlikely but indubitably genuine passion with which Consuelo fills him and the horrid spectacle, worse than mere jealousy, that his vanity and his realism co-produce for his well-schooled imagination. Ms Coixet and Mr Kingsley fully exonerate David of the charge of being a dirty, self-absorbed old man. The British actor burns, as always, with an egotism bent to the service of avid observation, but Kepesh is one of his most decent, one must say well-behaved men. He does not need to be taught, as so many Kepesh-like characters do, that other people have feelings, too. Our commiseration with his agony is unqualified.

As they sit over their pastries one morning, George reminds David that beautiful women are invisible, because men are so dazzled by their beauty that they never see the woman behind it. Penélope Cruz's Consuelo is fully aware of this, and it gives her serious expression a dusting of resigned impatience. She can come to terms with David's renewed interest in photography even if he takes pictures of her only. (She can even see that one of his shots is beautiful.) But the actress opens with the extravagance of an old rose later on in the film, when Consuelo's beauty is menaced by illness. Many women are doubtless bitter when surgery deprives them not only of their full bodies but of their husbands' and lovers' attention, but Consuelo knows why David loves her, and her sadness at the prospect of losing his love is untinged by vinegar. As if with the force of a magic spell, Consuelo's sad solace pries David's heart permanently open.

To say that Patricia Clarkson turns in one of her finest performances, playing Carolyn —  another former student of David's, but a rather older one with whom he has had a long-term but commitment-free arrangement — is simply to say the same old thing for the umpteenth time. Ms Clarkson's career is an oxymoronically challenged suite of finest performances. It is nevertheless the case here that Ms Clarkson, having conceived the perfect foil to Consuelo, articulates an idea of erotic entanglement that might have looked vulgar or needy on another actress. Carolyn is playful and kittenish, but she also has an abiding and very grown-up sense of the advantages that she brings to the relationship. "I'm one in a million!", she insists in outrage, having found a tampon of Consuelo's in the bathroom. We don't doubt it for an instant.

Mention must also be made of Peter Sarsgaard's selfless performance in the thankless role of Kenneth Kepesh, the son whom David walked out on when he was a boy. Kenneth is a bundle of childish, overly-enunciated grievances for whom we feel no more sorry than his father does. Kenneth's character is arguably extraneous to this love story, but his being a doctor affords him the chance to give his father some dearly-appreciated help when Consuelo's illness erupts. The always subtle Mr Sarsgaard registers Kenneth's reluctant awareness that his father is a changed man at the end so astutely that one might wonder if there is another movie to be made, but that other movie has been successfully compressed into a few moments of Elegy.

I won't say that I can't wait to see Elegy again. I'm going to enjoy waiting to see it again. Like a vintage wine, it stretches my appreciativeness. I'm curious to find out what I'll see the second time. (August 2008)

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