Film based on Philip Roth novel best adaptation yet

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

Elegy, the new film based on Philip Roth’s 2001 novel The Dying Animal is the most successful movie adaptation of a book by the author whom some now consider to be the greatest living Jewish writer. Under the very skilled direction of Isabel Coixet, and with an excellent screenplay by Nicholas Meyer which is faithful to Roth’s novel, Elegy tells the story of David Kepesh, one of Roth’s several alter-egos, a brilliant and popular professor in his sixties, and a holdover from the days when such men considered bedding down a desirable coed each year to be a kind of blood sport.

Ben Kingsley is brilliant in the role of Kepesh, who we are told works around the posted sexual harassment code of the university by waiting until he hosts his annual post-semester party before he makes his “move” on the latest object of his lust, a stunning Cuban-American student named Consuela Castillo whose dark-eyed beauty reminds Kepesh of a Goya painting and with whom he is totally smitten. Penelope Cruz, who does terrific work in the current Woody Allen film Vicky Cristina Barcelona as the fiery wife of a Spanish artist played by Javier Bardem, is spot-on perfect in the role of Consuela, whose beauty, sensuality and neediness are evoked precisely as Roth described them in his novel.

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Early in his career, Philip Roth wrote about intellectually brilliant and extremely lustful young Jewish men, who combined genuine middle class Jewish altruism with an overpowering sex urge. More recently, Roth has written about intellectually brilliant, extremely lustful older Jewish men who also struggle, without much success, to balance these conflicting urges. When Alexander Portnoy went to his famous psychoanalyst Dr. Spielvogel with his dilemma of conflicting values and urges, the good doctor called his syndrome “Portnoy’s Complaint,” the title of Roth’s most ribald and financially successful early novel. In the Jewish tradition, which Roth’s characters largely shun, the conflicting urges of the yetzer ha-tov, the inclination to do good is constantly at war with the “evil” or natural inclination, or the yetzer hara. The study of Torah and obedience to its laws is regarded as the means by which these conflicting urges can be balanced. In the case of very Jewish but very non-religious Jews like Woody Allen and Philip Roth, the Torah is rejected so that they must engage in the titanic struggle to balance their inclinations on their own, an exercise which creates much angst and misery along the way.

For David Kepesh, who in the film is bitterly divorced with a damaged and hurtful relationship with his grown and married son, life was relatively uncomplicated until the stunning arrival of Consuela Castillo in his life. He enjoys his teaching, reviewing of books, plays and the arts on local radio and TV, has a terrific best friend and fellow professor in poet George O’Hearn, played with total credibility by Dennis Hopper, in one of his best performances in years. Kepesh also has the steady, 20-year relationship with a non-demanding, understanding lover, Carolyn, portrayed with restraint and intelligence by Patricia Clarkson.

The acclaimed Spanish director Isabel Coixet does outstanding work with the film based on the work of Philip Roth, who has for years been criticized for his male-centered, egotistical and self-involved protagonists and persectives. Coixet directed such previous noted films as My Life With Me and The Secret Life of Words. In the production notes, Coixet describes how she wanted to take the masculine-oriented tale of seduction and its consequences to transform it into an “investigation of the power of love and its lasting effects — both on the beauty and on the beholder.” Coixet says she’s “at a point in my life where I try to understand people — to understand men. 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.” She adds that she sees the seduced student Consuela as the more powerful partner in the relationship with Kepesh. “She is the stronger of the two. She wants what she wants, and she is not ashamed.”

Indeed, the last thing Kepesh really expected was to fall head over heels not only in angry lust but in increasingly tender love. Kepesh is so self-involved and so reluctant to allow himself to fully connect to people, that he fails to act in ways that could turn his relationship into something truly meaningful. He is obsessively controlling and jealous of Consuela to the extent that he is miserable when not with her and desperately needy when they are together. Meanwhile, Consuela indeed knows what she wants, but Kepesh is clueless in his response to her clear indications that she wants their relationship to blossom into something with real meaning and depth.

The title of the novel, The Dying Animal, focuses on the out-of-control drives and instincts which can cause people to behave, well, like animals. Elegy, defined as a song or poem expressing sadness or lamentation, especially for someone who is dead is a more apt title for this work as brought to the screen by Coixet and screenwriter Meyer. At the outset of the film, the aging Kepesh quotes Bette Davis as saying “old age is not for sissies,” and indeed it is not. Kepesh is aware that he is not getting any younger, yet inside he still struggles with the same urges he engaged when he was much younger — and is equally powerless to either control or understand them. His friend, the poet George warns him that very beautiful women are “invisible; you are so dazzled by their outward appearance that you can never see to the inside.”

The aching sadness that the film’s title suggests, and which the story conveys so movingly, includes the facts that when one longs for something or someone so desperately, one cannot enjoy it once it is “attained,” and that as the Paul Simon song suggests, the saddest words are “what might have been.”

Isabel Coixet and her fine cast in Elegy have accomplished the first fully successful adaptation of a Philip Roth book to the big screen since Goodbye Columbus way back in 1969. Elegy is a serious, truly mature adult film that stirs both the emotions and the intellect. Roth must be very pleased with this film, which is bound to please a wide audience.

(Elegy is appearing locally at the Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema. It is rated R, Restricted to mature audiences due to the subject matter, which includes sexual situations).