Elegy: Philip Roth On Screen

Philip Roth’s novels and stories are not easily filmable, perhaps because they are more about ideas, moods, and complex characters than conventional plots and narrative arcs.

Case in point: Robert Benton’s “The Human Stain,” a dismal film that suffered from poor writing and even poorer casting (Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman in a steamy affair). Hence, just the thought of another Roth-driven movie was not particularly exciting.

However, “Elegy,” Spanish director Isabel Coixet’s screen version of Roth’s poignant novella “The Dying Animal,” may be the exception. It may be ironic that it took a woman, and a foreign one at that, to examine the inner workings of the male mind, the sexual anxieties of a protagonist who is not only aging and declining but also uniquely American.

Admittedly, Coixet is helped by Nicholas Meyer’s well-structured and nicely modulated scenario, which like the book, emphasizes that change is a constant in the world of the characters. But she deserves much credit for her judicious casting of the male roles, specifically Ben Kingsley as professor and critic and Dennis Hopper as an award-winning poet. We can easily accept Penelope Cruz as a sexy foreign student and Patricia Clarkson as a savvy middle-aged mistress.

Both men shine. I was not particularly impressed with Kingsley’s pot-smoking shrink in the Sundance Festival comedy “The Wackness,” because it was actorish and more about show-off and eccentricities. But in “Elegy,” Kingsley nails the part as an aging professor, who’s outwardly confident yet lonely and troubled, bringing his sharp intelligence and amazingly precise skills to a complex role that feels lived-in, emotionally vulnerable and truly naked. Kingsley is known for his alert eyes and fierce, penetrating look. There is no escape from him when he is present, and in “Elegey,” he draws the audience deep into his character, while also empowering his peers.

You could see (and believe) why these two unlikely individuals would be attracted to each other. Acutely aware that his sexual libido and lust will not go on forever, the womanizing professor David Kepesh jumps at the opportunity of seducing Consuela Castillo, whose sensuality and reserve opens him up in utterly unexpected ways. Totally captivated, he considers Consuela’s body a work of art, and Coixet’s camera glides over and zeroes in on Cruz’s famously shapely breast. Much of the richest conversation that passes between the two lovers happens in their eyes, the ways they look at each other. For her part, while realizing she’s sexy and alluring, Consuela is still too young to know how to use her beauty, what to do with her looks, and what kind of impact she has on males exposed to her.

Playing one of her more challenging characters, Cruz completely embodies the sort of breathtaking female that provokes passion and obsession in men. Though always an honest performer, in her English-speaking pictures (“Vanilla Sky” is prime example), Cruz was inhibited and far less effective than in her Spanish movies, such as Almodovar’s “All About My Mother” and “Volver,” for which she received a well-deserved Oscar nomination.

As penned and interpreted, Consuela is a bundle of contradictions, defying easy labels: simple in some moments and complex in others, nave in some situations and wildly unpredictable in others. Cruz brings a ferocious honesty to her impassioned performance as an extraordinarily beautiful femme that pins Kepesh like a butterfly to a wall. She captures the essence of a volatile woman driven by her strengths as well as fears.

For the jealous Kepesh, Consuela becomes an obsession; he’s sure she will be “stolen” away by a younger man, because in the past he would have been that young man. He makes probing inquiries about her old boyfriends and fantasizes betrayal at every turn. Kepesh can’t live without Consuela yet fears the inevitable, his decline and her departure. A manipulator, trapped by his own imagination, Kepesh sees himself objectified as an old man with a young woman, and he doesn’t like it.

When Consuela invites him to a family party to celebrate her graduation, Kepesh contrives a car breakdown to stay away. Furious at his misconduct, she decides to break their relationship off. Devastated, Kepesh immerses himself in work, only to realize that her power over him is even stronger in her absence.

After two years of loneliness, there is an unexpected phone call on New Year’s Eve, and needing to see him, Consuela comes to his apartment that night. The news she brings turns the world upside down. For a man who had always counted on being able to pull away, Kepesh is now challenged to reverse polarities, to connect at all cost. Even if the risks inherent in lust cut deep, Kepesh discovers the risks of love cut deeper.

Concerned that his best friend is taking too many risks by his fixation on Consuela, and should enjoy sex for what it is, Pulitzer-Prize winner poet George O’Hearn (Dennis Hopper) warns Kepesh, “beautiful women are invisible,” that he will be unable to see her actual (inner) persona because he is so dazzled with her physicality.

This observation, one of the film’s motifs, plays out over evocative scenes of Kepesh photographing Consuela at the beach, then developing the pictures in his dark room, turning them into images of longing frozen in time. Kepesh courts Consuela with his impressive collection of classic photos. Significantly, the ritual action of taking photographs returns as an important element in the film’s closing, which relies throughout on the interplay between outer image and inner reality, between seeing and being-seen. The meaning of the art works he shows Consuela is reflected in the way they are shot, in the color palette and use of mirrors and textured glass.

Roth has devoted a good deal of his oeuvre to feverish explorations in serious, darkly comic and outrageous chronicles of how sexual desire fuels and makes turbulent the lives of American men. But in creating Consuela, he goes beyond the beauty barrier to the actual person inside the “perfect image.” Coixet operates her own camera with longtime collaborator Jean-Claude Larrieu as director of photography, and the way the characters are visually depicted is critical to accomplishing this notion on screen.

Coixet’s empathetic, often humorous perspective informs not only the leads but also the secondary roles. She makes sure that the female characters know what they want, that they are more honest than the men.

Consider Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson), a high-powered businesswoman who has shared a sexual connection with Kepeshi for twenty years without entanglement or commitment. Carolyn, like Consuela, was once Kepesh’s prize student and lover. She is introduced in a rapturous bedroom performance of a striptease accompanied with sensual joy and expertise that exudes from a middle-aged woman. Carolyn is also marked by contradictions; she’s wildly successful in her professional life but unfulfilled in her personal one. When she realizes that Consuela’s impact goes past her own, she knows the affair will inevitably signal the end of their friendship, and her pain is palpable.

George O’Hearn is a famous man in control of his fate, riding on his reputation as a hipster, yet when he deals with challenges, he opens up with desperate need and startling immediacy. At the end, the cocksure George runs contrary to his own cynical advice. His fate is both a lesson and warning to Kepesh, as this bawdy, self-protected man is stripped bare by life and reconnects with his long-suffering wife (played by Deborah Harry).

Dennis Hopper also brings professionalism and personal charisma to the role the rascal poet who warns his old friend and fellow womanizer Kepesh to separate between sexual adventure and “real life.” Scenes between Kingsley and Hopper that might seem cynical thus take new range of meaning.

In the challenging role of Kenny Kepesh, the grown-up son who still feels deep resentment for his father’s infidelities, Peter Sarsgaard also renders a stellar performance. Repressed and judgmental, Kenny has always defined himself in opposition to his father, and even though he’s a successful physician, his old anger continues to fuel him. Something mysterious leads Kenny to destroy his own marriage and then confess about it to Kepesh. There’s a paradox in his competitive need for attention, and he achieves closeness by showing that he has followed in his dad’s footsteps. But by the time Kenny chooses to confront his father, the manipulative coldness that poisoned their bond is dissolving.