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Thursday, August 7, 2008

“Elegy” & the Female Film Critic

posted by on August 7 at 16:17 PM

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are many, many more male film critics than there are female film critics. Pauline Kael aside, film criticism has always been dominated by men, perhaps in part because amateur film criticism—standing around after a movie and yakking about it—usually descends into a foolish exercise in oneupsmanship in which blowhards compete to see who’s committed how much trivia to memory. (Once, in an example of this behavior I find particularly ripe, I found myself arguing with three other critics and programmers about who loved Claire Denis the most. Gross.)

Variety blogger Anne Thompson frequently expresses concern that the underrepresentation of women in film sections of major newspapers might translate into unsympathetic reviews of films aimed at women audiences. She cites 27 Dresses and Mamma Mia!—both reviewed, as it happens, by female critics here at The Stranger, though I’m not certain these reviews were any more sympathetic to what Thompson calls “the female POV” as they would have been otherwise. Actually, though, the fact that I assigned one to myself and another to Lindy West would seem to indicate otherwise.


The movies that really demand a “female POV” are not, in my opinion, romantic comedies. They are movies like Isabel Coixet’s Elegy—an adaptation, by a male screenwriter and female (Catalan, as it happens) director, of a Philip Roth novella with a unrepentantly misogynistic narrator whose point of view is nonetheless thoroughly contextualized. I scanned the reviews of the film collected by GreenCine Daily yesterday (where it is, hilariously, paired with Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, another movie that demands at least cursory discussion of gender, as well as national stereotypes), and I was dismayed to see that the critics—up to that point—were all men: David Edelstein, David Denby, Ed Gonzalez, Glenn Kelly, and Alonso Duralde. The reviews are largely positive, and none makes much effort to deal with the gender issues that pervade the film and its source material. I crossed my fingers that Manohla Dargis would be reviewing it for the New York Times. My wish was granted, and she did a bang-up job:

The problem with “Elegy” has nothing to do with faithfulness and everything to do with interpretation. The film is an overly polite take on a spiky, claustrophobic, insistently impolite novel, but this wouldn’t be such an issue if [director Isabel] Coixet had the cinematic language that could withstand, equal, obliterate or transcend the book’s blunt force, its beautiful sentences, flashes of genius and spleen. Ms. Coixet has a fine eye and she has created a visual scheme — an attractively dark palette, discreetly hovering camera movements and smooth edits — that makes everything look very nice indeed (especially the radiant if miscast Ms. Cruz). There’s not a hair out of place here or an emotion. It’s as if Ms. Coixet had tried to quiet the howls of a dying animal.

It’s a wonder that filmmakers continue to adapt Mr. Roth’s work to the screen, which is largely inhospitable to tough, prickly and unappetizing ideas and characters, especially in America. It seems instructive that no great director has tackled this great writer, whether out of fear or shrewdness. Certainly it’s understandable that a female filmmaker would have a go at Mr. Roth, though “The Dying Animal,” with its unloving encounters, maddening woman troubles and occasional gynecological descriptions, really cries out for a reckless voluptuary like Catherine Breillat, who wouldn’t go all soft. She could smack all that male contempt around, but also give it its honest due. She would keep the novel’s furious bite.

Thank god. My review is here. I warn you: I complain about the absence of menstrual blood. This was my clumsy way of getting at exactly what Dargis describes above. Catherine Breillat, fuck yeah: She would do the menstrual blood. After all, she’s already made tampon tea.

Other female film critics who have reviewed or will review Elegy include Ella Taylor and Moira McDonald.

Update, Fri am: McDonald saw Elegy with me, but it looks like the review went to John Hartl instead. I wouldn’t say Hartl is the most myopic of male critics, but he doesn’t address the protagonist’s hostility toward women at all. Worse still is William Arnold at the PI, who breezes past the misogyny and then comes out with this wonder of a paragraph:

As we watch this lothario spurned, transformed into a jealous stalker and put on the road to a personal epiphany, the miracle of the movie is Kingsley’s performance, which manages to find David’s humanity and actually makes us identify with and root for him. It’s quite a feat.

I’m sorry, I just don’t think you’re supposed to “root for” David Kepesh. And that personal epiphany? (Minor spoiler.) It comes when David realizes he can really truly love a woman with only one boob. Another way of seeing it is that the perfect body he worships has to be damaged—infected, cut up, maimed—before he can relate to the person. It isn’t a pretty moment. (And it doesn’t exist as such in the novella, which is more open-ended.) I have a hard time endorsing this notion that Ben Kingsley deserves an Oscar for a performance in which he buries all the noxious things about his character and makes us “root for him.” That’s whitewashing, not a tour de force.

RSS icon Comments


Spleen? Like, the organ?

Posted by slim | August 7, 2008 4:34 PM

Derived from, yes. Here, why don't you look it up? I'll help: spleen, splenetic.

Posted by annie | August 7, 2008 4:45 PM

I agree with you, and though I don't know anything about Elegy, I remember being really disgusted by the premise of "Lars and the Real Girl" and wishing someone in Seattle had presented a feminist critique of that film. I saw about 15 minutes of it, hated the Lars character, and gave up.

There seemed to be so many obviously disturbing, misogynistic issues that this movie raised which were completely ignored by critics, and it was simply viewed as a sweet, quirky indie film. Granted, I think I only read the Weekly, the PI, and the Stranger reviews, but you expect your alternative papers to pick up on these things.

Posted by eh | August 7, 2008 5:36 PM


You might want to give that movie another try. I could barely watch the beginning, but the premise of the film and its ultimate resolution are not what they appear at first glance.

Posted by keshmeshi | August 7, 2008 9:30 PM

I know this is beside the point, but is there any actress anywhere in the world aging as well as Penelope Cruz? Every year that goes by, she looks that much more stunning.

Posted by Matthew | August 7, 2008 10:40 PM

Good point, Annie. David Bordwell just wrote a very amusing piece about cinephile oneupsmanship:

Posted by ratzkywatzky | August 8, 2008 8:07 AM

Thank you.

Posted by K. | August 8, 2008 9:08 AM

well... at least if you don't like wooden boats you can go fly a kite and stay as fixated on beautiful oneupmansship as an obviously aging breast idolizor and younger cubist art student incognito.

Posted by presuposition aside | August 8, 2008 12:57 PM

They are radio reviews, but as I was listening to "AirTalk" this morning (LA public radio station KPCC's morning talk show with host Larry Mantle) "Jean Oppenheimer, of Village Voice Media, and Claudia Puig, of USA Today" reviewed "Elegy". And they both liked it. There is an audio file available at

Posted by Enuja | August 8, 2008 6:09 PM

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