Monday, March 15, 2010


In response to B’s email asking about the topic of my PhD research, I stated the lengthy title of my dissertation, following it with the words “. . . or something similarly pretentious.”  B replied,

You're so self-deprecating. Do you feel a need to do that because of your self-confidence, that you don't want to appear arrogantly self-assured?

His observation was not made in a vacuum but came hard on the heels of some self-deprecating remarks I had made about this picture.  (Full disclosure:  B, who happens to be gay, is one of my oldest friends, and probably knows me better than anyone not actually in my family.

I never answered B’s question, and I won’t attempt to answer it here, but the exchange crossed my mind as I watched the excellent movie Elegy, wherein an older college professor (Ben Kingsley, 66) has an affair with one of his much-younger students (Penelope Cruz, 35).

The characters’ ages are never explicitly stated in the movie; however, based on her biography, I think the audience is supposed to take the undergraduate Cruz as approximately 25.  But this doesn’t really work.  First, while Cruz’s body is still exquisite, it no longer belongs to a 25 year old.  And second, although Kingsley’s narration describes her as someone who “knows she is beautiful, but hasn’t decided what to do with her beauty,” it becomes quickly apparent that Cruz’s character possesses great self-assurance and maturity – more maturity than any twenty-five-year-old I’ve ever met, and indeed more than Kingsley’s playboy professor.  Cruz, with no hint of flakiness, has decided what she wants to do with her beauty:  have an adult relationship with Kingsley.

But it is instead the college professor that can’t handle this relationship, and Kingsley gives a compelling portrayal of why this would be so:  as he candidly admits to her, she is young, beautiful, and could easily have a younger and better-looking boyfriend; “I’m afraid that one day you will wake up and realize this.”

So . . . he sabotages the relationship, first with low-key jealousy and then with his own flakiness.  He fails to attend her graduation party, afraid that her parents will think of him as a dirty old man.  (A not-unjustified assessment, in my opinion.)  She concludes, not unreasonably, that he is incapable of a committed relationship, and in tears breaks up with him.

Now, this isn’t the whole of the story in real life.  The movie touches on, but doesn’t really resolve, the issue of whether or not the typical undergraduate female’s infatuation with a charismatic professor is an adequate basis for, say, lifelong marriage.  And no reader of this blog would fail to note that, since the movie is told through Kingsley’s eyes rather than Cruz’s, it doesn’t really delve into the impact that markers of relative sexual status have on a woman’s attraction to a man.  Nonetheless, the movie eloquently shows this aspect:  how difficult a relationship is when a man can’t answer, to his own satisfaction, the question, “why would this woman stay with me?”  Call it status; call it self-esteem; but a man needs it, for his own sake, if he is to make a viable romantic partner.  Kingsley and Cruz return to each other in the movie’s denouement; events conspire to equalize their status as Kingsley recons it, and he finally is able to answer the question.

No comments: