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.