Finally back in the saddle after a luxuriously long absence, I’m returning = with a fresh palate. For almost a month, I didn’t set foot in a movie theatre. Saw a bunch of stuff on DVD—Michael Mann’s big screen version of Miami Vice was an especially guilty pleasure—but I’m just now catching up on some the movies I’ve missed. I did see Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona in Cannes, but last night I was happy to see it again (as a date movie with my wife). It’s even better than I remembered, and best enjoyed as a summer treat rather than under the harsh scrutiny of Cannes. Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz are dynamite, and this could be the comedy that finally wins Woody back his audience 16 years after mortifying them by leaving Mia Farrow for her adopted child, who’s now virtually middle-aged.
Among this weekend’s releases, meanwhile, Penélope Cruz pops up again in Elegy, a May-December romance with Ben Kingsley. It’s worth a look. And for an more exotic tale of romantic havoc, I highly recommend Tuya’s Marriage, a Chinese film about a Mongolian shepherdess that won the top prize, the Golden Bear, at the Berlin Film Festival.
May-December romance has become a staple of the art house. It carries a frisson of intellectual eros, conveniently pairing a young beauty with an aging thespian. And as youth worships genius and genius worships youth, these bittersweet romances have a fatal symmetry. They are inevitably doomed. The tone is elegiac. And the protagonist is is almost invariably the male—very often an artist of some sort who is finally forced to confront his own mortality in the adoring eyes of a woman he can never fully possess.
In recent years, we’ve seen a variety of Serious Actors tackle such roles: Anthony Hopkins as a college professor seduced by a gum-snapping Nicole Kidman in The Human Stain (2003); Peter O’Toole as a septuagenarian actor who courts a teenage punk in Venus (2006); and, most memorably, Frank Langella as washed-up novelist who’s waylaid by a literary vixen in Starting Out in the Evening (2007).
Elegy, starring Penélope Cruz, and Ben Kingsley offers the latest spin on the May-December genre, and if it bears some resemblance to The Human Stain, that’s because it, too, is based on a novel by Philip Roth, The Dying Animal, and Kingsley’s character, a libidinous professor named David Kepesh, seems closely related to Coleman Silk, the libidinous professor played by Hopkins in The Human Stain. Hey, it’s a small world.
But a couple of things distinguish Elegy from Venus or Starting out in the Evening. First, although he’s in his 60, Kingsley’s Kepesh is hardly a tired old geezer. He’s a fully functioning sexual animal at the top of his form, a predatory prof with the good sense never to hit on his female students until after he’s graded them—then he singles out his prey at his annual post-semester cocktail.
The other thing that’s unusual about this male-gaze drama is that it’s directed by a woman, Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet, who’s known for making movies with strong female roles (notably those filled by Sarah Polley in My Life Without Me and The Secret Life of Words). Between Coixet’s direction and the quiet power that Cruz brings to her role, some balance is redressed. And for Kingsley, being directed by a woman is perhaps not unlike having a female lawyer represent the husband in a divorce trial.
Although the story unfolds from Kepesh’s point of view (he’s the narrator), we view him through the director’s female gaze, which is both erotic and empathetic. And by the end of the story, she’s clearly seeking to strike a moral equivalency between her two characters that obliterates the barriers of age, and the judgments that go with them.
Now, before this review descends into a deconstructionist wank on narrative and gender, I suppose I should come clean and say what I thought of the film. Frankly, I was torn. I liked it up to a point, but it made me queasy.
l adored Penélope Cruz in the role of the young Cuban-American student, Consuela. And not just for the breathtaking beauty that holds Kingsley transfixed as she reveals her body to him. (Although she’s portraying an older man’s lovestruck object of desire, Cruz somehow preserves a fierce sense of independence throughout.) But there is something distinctly creepy about Kingsley that goes beyond the character—the slippery narcissism of the patrician intellect who keeps his furry physique immaculately toned and has a darkroom in his apartment. Maybe Sir Ben is just too well-cast. At the courtship cocktail, as the professor seduces his student with talk of Kafka and Goya while Madeline Peyroux croons a swing-jazz version of Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me to the End of Love on his stereo, I could feel the filmmaker falling for this smooth operator along with her lead actress. The romance, in other words, in unalloyed.
Then there’s the sex. These things are highly personal, but the generous scenes of Penélope’s breasts sharing the screen with Sir Ben’s silver thicket of chest hair are, to my mind, not as erotic or romantic as they were intended to be. There there are bits of dialogue like this:
—You have the most beautiful breasts I’ve ever seen
—You like them?
—I worship them.
Kingsley’s character declares his young lover to be “a work of art”—hence the possessiveness that leads to his downfall. And the “art” is framed a lot of astute, vintage Roth reflection, with zingers like this one: “When you make love to a woman you get revenge for all the things that defeated you in life.”
Patricia Clarkson and Dennis Hopper, meanwhile, chip in some delightful perspective from the sidelines. Clarkson plays a sardonic businesswoman who travels constantly and has been zooming in and out of the professor’s life for 20 years, offering sex with no-strings attached. Clearly, he doesn’t deserve her. As the professor’s best friend—a celebrated poet who keeps warning him not to take his fling with Consuela beyond casual sex—Hopper is hilarious, and he has the best advice: “You’ve got to stop worrying about growing old; worry about growing up.” He also delivers a line that could be an embedded criticism of the film: “I have spent half my life playing Horatio to your third-rate Hamlet.”
But in the end, these are quibbles. Despite my aversions to Kingsley, he plays the role well. All the actors, in fact, are superb. Cruz is extraordinary. I enjoyed the first two-thirds of the film. My main disappointment is that it takes a predictable, tragic turn in the third act, which drags out the pathos and gives the romance more credence than it deserves. But in art, as in love, two acts out of three ain’t bad.
Some foreign films are simply good movies that happen to be foreign. Others have the added attraction of taking you to a strange and beautiful land that is worlds removed from your own. Tuya’s Marriage is one of those films. And now that the dust is settling from the Bejiing Olympics, here’s a chance to expierence a very different kind of Chinese spectacle.
Chinese actress Yu Nan stars as a bold and beautiful shepherdess struggling to survive in the desert of Inner Mongolia with a crippled husband and two children. After husband hurt his leg while digging a well, and she became the household matriarch, but has to find an able- bodied husband to care for her and her family. She’s beseiged by various suitors, from a former classmate who’s now a rich oilman to a besotted, accident-prone neighbour who wants to leave his wife for her and insists on digging a well next to her house.
Directed by Bejiing’s Wang Quan, the drama is enthralling, gorgeous to look at and suprisingly witty considering it’s not exactly a comedy. The men don’t come off very well in this tale of romantic opportunism; they’re all fools of one sort or another. And as the hard-headed heroine fielding their clumsy advances, Yu Nan—her radiant features framed by a shifting repertoire of vivid headscarves—is a powerful, mesmerizing presence.
The word “exotic” does carry a tinge of post-colonial voyeurism. But really, how often do you get to see droll feminist drama about a fierce and fashionable shepherdess who rides a camel in the Mongolian desert and has to choose between a suitor who comes after her on a galloping white horse and another who chases her down in a black Mercedes Benz?