Extracurricular Lessons for Student and Teacher
By MANOHLA DARGIS
Published: August 8, 2008
“Elegy” is such a serious, oftentimes grave exploration of desire and the ways of aging and desperate flesh that it’s a miracle the two central characters — a literary star named David Kepesh and his much younger lover, Consuela — have as much sex as they do. Despite some low-key lovemaking and the considerably more overwrought talk, there’s very little pleasure to be found amid this film’s penumbral lighting, careful compositions and muffled, muffling good taste. There isn’t much juice here either, though the film is based on “The Dying Animal,” a brutal, short novel by Philip Roth that oozes like a wound.
The book is fascinating and repellent, more admirable than likable, a fusion of early Roth (sex) and late Roth (death). It’s narrated by Kepesh (Ben Kingsley in the film), who in 1972 metamorphosed into the title character of “The Breast” and five years later became Mr. Roth’s eponymous “Professor of Desire.” The Kepesh in “The Dying Animal” is 70 and engorged with rage. His fury and vigorous language belie the aging flesh he bitterly complains about as he recalls his obsessive affair with Consuela (Penélope Cruz, an obvious if remote object of desire) eight years earlier. She was his student and ripe for the plucking, especially in the film, where she enters clutching Roland Barthes’s “Pleasure of the Text” to her lush bosom.
In the novel Kepesh is pathetic and self-loathing, but perversely enthralling because Mr. Roth’s prose is. Kepesh detests his decaying (dying) body and worships Consuela’s ripe (blooming) one. In the film, directed by Isabel Coixet and written by Nicholas Meyer (he adapted Mr. Roth’s “Human Stain” to the screen), Kepesh is cool and watchful and Mr. Kingsley plays him without a trace of plausible weakness. With his flat stomach and beaky profile (he’s more eagle than goat), Mr. Kingsley looks too proud to indulge in the humiliating revelations that, in the novel, Kepesh ritualistically bathes in. The actor and the filmmakers have made the character their own, but their portrait of a lonely man incapable of surrendering to love is familiar and banal.
Comparisons between novels and screen adaptations are inevitable, particularly when a film announces its literary pedigree as this one reasonably does. The trick is not to confuse the two or assume that the best adaptation is the most faithful or makes for good cinema. “Elegy” has the veneer of fealty. It shares some of the book’s dialogue, most of its plot points and characters: a bold Patricia Clarkson plays Kepesh’s other lover, Peter Sarsgaard his unhappy son and Dennis Hopper his only friend. The film also dilutes the novel’s pessimism, its smog of self-contempt and more aggressively ugly deeds and words — no one could mistake the onscreen Kepesh for a misogynist — but dilution, bowdlerization, counter-readings and heresy are legitimate strategies in the adaptation racket. Dullness isn’t.
The problem with “Elegy” has nothing to do with faithfulness and everything to do with interpretation. The film is an overly polite take on a spiky, claustrophobic, insistently impolite novel, but this wouldn’t be such an issue if Ms. Coixet had the cinematic language that could withstand, equal, obliterate or transcend the book’s blunt force, its beautiful sentences, flashes of genius and spleen. Ms. Coixet has a fine eye and she has created a visual scheme — an attractively dark palette, discreetly hovering camera movements and smooth edits — that makes everything look very nice indeed (especially the radiant if miscast Ms. Cruz). There’s not a hair out of place here or an emotion. It’s as if Ms. Coixet had tried to quiet the howls of a dying animal.
It’s a wonder that filmmakers continue to adapt Mr. Roth’s work to the screen, which is largely inhospitable to tough, prickly and unappetizing ideas and characters, especially in America. It seems instructive that no great director has tackled this great writer, whether out of fear or shrewdness. Certainly it’s understandable that a female filmmaker would have a go at Mr. Roth, though “The Dying Animal,” with its unloving encounters, maddening woman troubles and occasional gynecological descriptions, really cries out for a reckless voluptuary like Catherine Breillat, who wouldn’t go all soft. She could smack all that male contempt around, but also give it its honest due. She would keep the novel’s furious bite.
“Elegy” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Female nudity.
Opens on Friday in Manhattan.
Directed by Isabel Coixet; written by Nicholas Meyer, based on the novel “The Dying Animal” by Philip Roth; director of photography, Jean-Claude Larrieu; edited by Amy Duddleston; production designer, Claude Paré; produced by Tom Rosenberg, Gary Lucchesi and Andre Lamal; released by Samuel Goldwyn Films. Running time: 1 hour 48 minutes.
WITH: Penélope Cruz (Consuela), Ben Kingsley (David Kepesh), Dennis Hopper (George O’Hearn), Patricia Clarkson (Carolyn), Peter Sarsgaard (Dr. Kenny Kepesh) and Deborah Harry (Amy O’Hearn).
we live for nothing. we die for free
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