Elegy is a fitting title for Spanish director Isabel Coixet’s recent adaptation of the short novel by Philip Roth, The Dying Animal. It is a pensive lament for its principal character, who sadly is never fully realized in this work.
The film follows the life of sixty-something David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley), a professor and critic of some celebrity status, who in addition to presenting charismatic lectures to his eager audience of graduate students at Columbia University, makes regular appearances on television and radio. We quickly discover, however, that his main vocation is to find the one student in his classes who truly piques his libidinal interest. Fully aware of the recent safeguards in academia regarding sexual harassment, the methodical Kepesh stalks his prey in a ritual after-class party at his NYC apartment. As the film begins, a young woman in her mid-to-late twenties named Consuela Castillo has caught his eye not only for her almost implausible beauty but also for her rather regal demeanor. The daughter of 1960s Cuban immigrants, Consuela is played brilliantly by Spanish actress Penélope Cruz right down to her Cuban accent and her uptight Catholic upbringing. She is captivated by Kepesh’s charm and, following the requisite period of courtship, is soon seduced when he lures her back to his lair and plays for her on his grand piano.
The classical music that serves as a backdrop throughout the film seduces not just the vulnerable Consuela but also the audience as it enhances the film’s slow, metronomic pace. Like the black-lit darkroom where Kepesh develops his aesthetically perfect photographs of Consuela, the chiaroscuro lighting of the sets reflects the ambiance of the film. Indeed, a good deal of time is devoted to highlighting Consuela’s beauty as a reflection of Kepesh’s own physical obsession. (To be sure, the camera work of cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu accentuates Cruz’s considerable charms.)
Yet the aesthetics of the film, with Kingsley himself adding to the visual harmony and making a surprisingly compelling match with Cruz, seem somehow off-kilter with the plot. Kingsley’s superb portrayal has already won him accolades and may well garner a nomination or two during the upcoming awards season, but because of the thinness of the two principal characters, the strong supporting actors (Dennis Hopper, who plays George O’Hearn, a prize-winning poet and Patricia Clarkson, Kepesh’s long-time lover) fill in where Kepesh and Consuela seem to fade.
“Beautiful women are invisible,” Kepesh’s only friend George O’Hearn tells him. Their physical beauty, he implies, blinds the beholder to what lies within. And although George appears to be giving Kepesh a less than subtle hint about his infatuation with Consuela, it doesn’t seem to sink in, for what we see of her through Kepesh’s eyes for most of the film is, in fact, only skin deep even as the story evolves and Kepesh actually ends up falling in love.
For a story that revolves around sexual obsession, however, the film does not rise to the challenge of convincingly portraying the complexities — in particular, the misogyny and anger — of the main character in Roth’s novel. We are not privy to Roth’s unflinching exposition of Kepesh’s rage against women as it must surely manifest itself in the bedroom. Rather, those intimate scenes are glossed over in the same soft hues without any visual or linguistic explicitness. It is surely a daunting task to explore and develop the complexity of this character, but director Isabel Coixet seems almost fearful that her audience may end up not liking Kepesh quite enough if it were to know him more fully.
So, the film meanders searching for its own trajectory, just as its main characters seem to do on a deserted Long Island beach while they plan for a future that will never be. In the end, Elegy seems to find itself at an almost trite conclusion — an ending more reminiscent of a hackneyed love story than of a daring exploration of aging, love, and death.
The review by M. C. Saavedra came to MRZine via Michael Yates.