Mourning For a Better Story
Elegy, Dir. by Isabel Coixet, Lakeshore Entertainment
In Elegy, Isabel Coixet creates a sensually lush adaptation of Philip Roth’s inert and insipid story “The Dying Animal.’’ The film reveals a tone, rather stilted at first, that slowly seeps into the psyche. Elegy conveys a maturity that Roth's novel lacks, and a pathos that he transparently strived for but could not achieve.
Roth’s misogyny feels tiresome. “The Dying Animal” possesses some gem-like sentences describing the nuances of sex, but is overwhelmed by the narrator’s haughty voice. That vapid first-person monologue purports to be a fascinating insight into masculine desire, but if it were truly insightful, the characters in the story would acquire genuine depth. David Kepesh, played cooly by Ben Kingsley, is an aging professor obsessed with his gorgeous 24-year old student, Conseula Castillo. Kepesh thinks with his “prick," a favorite term he frequently employs, and he can’t get enough of Castillo’s “round, full, perfect” breasts. In fact, he is so enamored of her breasts that he believes he might be falling in love for the first time in his life. That is the gist of the story.
I wanted to see Elegy when I learned it was directed by a woman. I was curious to see how she might interpret Kepesh, but furthermore, I wondered whether she could flesh out Castillo to fill a role other than tender meat. Penelope Cruz plays Castillo as a shy and naïve student. Her performance is unlike her usual—an exquisite woman in total control of her sex appeal. In Elegy, Castillo quickly learns that she is the doe and succumbs to Kepesh’s hunter’s gaze. She comes across as awkward, moving through spaces with trepidation, as if her professor might pounce on her at any moment—which he does, frequently. Her manner is too poised and her hair is perfectly coiffed, accented with short shiny bangs—not Penelope’s usual mass of unruly tresses. The affair between the unlikely pair is disquieting, something feels amiss, and a foreboding melancholia permeates the air. It is unclear why Castillo wants Kepesh, but the affair goes on.
Coixet crafts a claustrophobic bubble of monied academia. She portrays Kepesh as perpetually holding a glass of red wine, and it's a costly variety, you can be sure. Kepesh inhabits his apartment meticulously, repeating affected gestures of an intellectual lifestyle. He stares out windows stoically or sits formally on his couch, moving little. The rooms feel sterile, as if a housekeeper trails his every move. Kepesh's books are prized possessions and placed prominently on lacquered shelves. They have been carefully selected to impress any woman curious about literature and great works of art —because surely they will benefit from his wealth of knowledge. Coixet lights the space with soft yellows that emanate from low lamps—converting every space into a sultry bedroom. An eery stillness pervades. Music weaves in and out of scenes in seductive ways, whether Chet Baker coos gently or Kepesh plays heavy sonatas on his piano. A spell is cast, not just on Castillo, but on me. The dark setting evokes a dreamy desire for pleasure. Even when characters step outside, it seems that the sun has just set and the sky appears awash in a contemplative blue, submerged in an ocean of slow-moving, otherworldly rhythms. As Roth put it in the novel, we “are caught in that sensual music” of longing. Mundane but beautifully figured pastimes such as eating at stuffy restaurants, strolling on the beach, or languishing in post-coital sheets turn into ruminations. These images appear as a montage, materializing onto the screen with the gloss, sheen, sensuality and pace of molasses.
Coixet is her most adept with intimacy. Castillo and Kepesh begin with fumbling and long silences suggesting apprehension: what do we do next, who kisses who first, am I actually into this? Gradually, a familiarity is reached and their slow dance becomes slightly easier to watch. Cruz’s features are so open and ravishing that you are entranced no matter what she does. Kingsley’s deeply wrinkled body against her soft blooming reveals the most poignant elegy. She must be attracted to his adroit manner absent of warmth, because she keeps coming for more. The tension between them engages because it is mysterious. Coixet brought a femininity to the women in the film that the book cannot understand. Carolyn, the other woman in Kepesh’s life, is played by Patricia Clarkson, whose scenes as his occasional lover are perfectly choreographed. She is years older than Castillo, but was also once Kepesh's student. Now a successful businesswoman who has little time or patience to date, she visits him regularly. The tangible ease between them feels natural and wonderfully satisfying, unlike the distressing version enacted with Castillo. Clarkson embodies this role expertly and her scenes are too few. The subtlety of the bedroom scenes before sex (not during) are the film’s strongest. In these moments we can feel Kepesh being honest in the way that he marvels at their bodies, enraptured with the coming satisfaction that they alone can give him. The revelation is fleeting because as soon as they begin, he is already scheming of a way to be free of them, regressing to childish fears of commitment. The women hold sway over him when they build towards the act, knowing he can no longer assume the superior role.
If titles can serve as hints then Elegy as opposed to “The Dying Animal” presents the obvious clue. The many guises of death hover as a metaphor in both versions. In the book, Kepesh is the sole narrator and we are persuaded to believe his version of Castillo because we have no option. As an all-knowing professor, he imagines that his personal life’s mastery lies in conquering women. His frustration finds root in his insatiable desire for Castillo, the one woman who unravels him. She was the exception, a surprise, and he resents her for it. The novel’s irritating narrator arrives in the film as a voice-over to explain how Kepesh got himself into this mess and what he is thinking. The device distracts from the film’s visual power. Even so, Coixet finesses a more palatable version of Kepesh. Coixet tones him down, muddles his aggression with acts of affection and vulnerability. His face is the giveaway. No matter how collected and smooth Kingsley’s gait may be, his features show fear. He has gone too far with Castillo and feels lost to himself. The story attempts to make Kepesh grow up, yet the conflict lies in his inability to honestly experience sympathy for others. By the time Roth invents a reason that will make Kepesh grow emotionally, that reason plays as unintentional comedy and tidies up the ending falsely. Ultimately, Elegy is unable to find the release that lies right beneath the veneer of its emotions. The film wants to be about love, but in its allegiance to Roth’s story, it can only pursue lust.
ContributorCamila de Onís
CAMILA DE ONIS is a Brooklyn-based writer who wants a dog like Lucy.