Elegy (2008): Spanish Isabel Coixet, First Female Director to Adapt Philip Roth Novel to the Big Screen

In directing Elegy, Spanish director Isabel Coixet (“My Life With Me,” “The Secret Life of Words”) becomes the first female filmmaker to take on the celebrated and controversial work of Philip Roth, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in fiction.

She brings to the project intense concentration on the inner lives of her characters. The film presents the contest of passion between an extraordinary young woman Consuela, played by Penelope Cruz (Volver, All About My Mother) and a sophisticated college professor, David Kepesh, played by Ben Kingsley (“Gandhi,” “Sexy Beast”) without taking sides or making final judgments.

Under her helm, what might easily be considered a masculine-oriented tale of seduction and its consequences becomes a penetrating investigation of the power of love and its lasting effects on the beauty as well as on the beholder.

“I am at a point in my life where I try to understand people to understand men,” Coixet says. In Elegy, David Kepesh tries to escape by focusing on sex; yet, at the end, through sex he finds love. I think it quite moving. In pivotal ways, the director sees Cruzs less experienced Consuela as the more powerful one: She is the stronger of the two. She wants what she wants, and she is not ashamed.

Self-assured Professor Kepesh seems to know everything, but in the face of consuming passion, he has a lot to learn. In the very first scene of the movie, we meet him in full celebrity mode, appearing on The Charlie Rose Show to promote his provocative new book on the hidden origins of American hedonism. An outspoken advocate of Sexual Happiness, Kepesh evokes its roots in the little-known colonial community of Merrymount, founded by rebel Thomas Morton only thirty miles from Plymouth Rock.

A haven for rebels, outsiders and freethinkers, the settlement soon disappeared. As Kepesh declares: The Puritans shut them down. It took until the 1960sthe decade of the professors own coming of age for their suppressed message of liberation to explode again on American soil. Wry, articulate and playful, Kepesh defines himself as a proud spiritual descendant of these pioneer rebels. Yet, in dealing with the carnal aspects of the human comedy, even a longtime rebel lives by rules. There is a price to be paid when even the boldest rules are broken. There may also be, as he comes to discover, a deep and permanent reward.

What happens to a man like Kepesha serial seducer of considerable skill who loves women but never lets them come too close-when confronted head–on by the extraordinary Consuela Castillo. A woman whose astonishing raven-haired beauty both transfixes and transforms, this daughter of conservative Cuban immigrants is an intoxicating mix of the polite and the profane. Yet she is never someone to be exploited.

Even though Consuela faces terrifying reversals, Cruz describes how her character pursues her own goals and exercises control in the relationship with Kepesh: Hes no predator, she’s no victim. She knows why she wants to be with this man. As their connection grows, falls apart and comes back together again, both Kepesh and Consuela must deal with the immediacy of passion, the aching pain of loss, and the possibility of love.

Working from a screenplay by Oscar-nominee Nicholas Meyer (“The Seven-Per-Cent Solution,” “Sommersby”), Coixet involved her whole creative team in the adventure of translating an intimate tale of two people in close quarters into riveting visual storytelling and sensual film drama.

Oscar winner Ben Kingsley sees the core of this collaborative effort as the examination of love between men and women. This is something the actor considers essential, because the only thing that’s holding this planet, this whole damn show, together is love.