Monday Mar 02 2009
I saw the movie Elegy last night
starring Sir Ben Kingsley and Penèlope Cruz. It was an exceptionally
intense love story between a man and a much younger woman. He is a
professor and she his student. What begins for him as a casual romp is
true love for her and soon he too is in love, but is tortured and
insecure because of their age difference. Patricia Clarkson is his
stable ‘partner/wife’ who has her own career, is exceptionally
independent and makes no demands. When she learns of the affair, she
leaves him to deal with his demons and his dreams.
The acting is great, although Kingsley plays the part of the conflicted lover so seriously that one wonders if he is having any fun. There are plenty of lusty scenes and he looks great. Anyone would love to have his physique at any age. Naturally Penèlope and Patricia look fabulous, leaving one to wonder if ordinary people have these kinds of dramas in their lives. Nonetheless, Kingsley’s struggles with what he perceives as the realities of age and his desires are riveting.
Cross-generational romance has been the food for some great movies and always seems to evoke a kind of ambivalence in us. In Harold and Maude, a young man’s love of an old woman echoes the theme of how to deal with the fact that one of us will die much sooner than the other. In Carnal Knowledge, the price Jack Nicholson pays as an aging lothario is empty loneliness when he is no longer able to be the seducer. In Venus, Peter O’Toole finds joy and meaning at the end of his life in an unconsummated affair with a woman about 50 years younger than he. Elegy has a happy ending in terms of the love story, but there is a lot of pain and tragedy along the way.
We don’t have to look very far to find examples of May/December love stories in real life. Larry King is in his 70s with children in elementary school. Kenny Rogers has a famously happy marriage with a woman 30 years his junior. But in general, these kinds of relationships are judged harshly in some communities as being just slightly more acceptable than gay, interracial or inter-religious unions. The terms ‘trophy wife’ or ‘gold digger’ are quickly employed to explain what the culture deems as being ‘unnatural’.
The fact is that love (and for that matter sex) are not age-specific. I think it is true that there will be difficulties anytime someone commits to an unconventional relationship. But, as the movie makes painfully clear, people must make their own choices of who they will love, how their relationship will work and what they want. The intensity of the film is in the legitimate arguments between their love and his desire to ‘do what is best for her’. For example, “When she is 50ish, he will be pushing 85 and she’ll become his nurse”. The irony, of course, is that no one knows when our time will come. And in Elegy it is she who in the end must confront her own mortality and its impact on their future.
The movie doesn’t give us an answer. But it is a powerful reminder that as we grow older we have all the same sorts of issues and questions and dilemmas that we’ve had throughout our lives. The joys and pain of living are with us until the very end. If there is a message here, it is that we must make our choices in the moment and not try to live within some formula of how life should be or might be in the future.
© 2009 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.