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Out of Frame: Elegy

Philip Roth:
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The Breast

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The Professor of Desire

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The Dying Animal
Spanish director Isabel Coixet’s new film, Elegy, is an adaptation of a book by Philip Roth, that famous libido who also had a second career as a novelist. Roth’s characters, usually bookish academic types, have molested, abused, and otherwise fucked their way through some of the most memorable pages in American literature. The character David Kepesh made his appearance in a Kafkaesque novella in which he was transformed into a massive tit -- literally, the part of the female anatomy (The Breast, 1971). Just as Gregor Samsa had to learn how to get along as a giant beetle, Kepesh learned to cope with existence as a mammary. A few years later, Prof. Kepesh returned in The Professor of Desire, which went back to Kepesh's childhood and the first installments of what would become a Don Juan’s catalogue of conquests. In the third volume, The Dying Animal, from 2001, Roth has his character confront the inevitable end of his lustful quest -- not that he loses his sex drive, but that it becomes obsessively bound up with one woman.

David Kepesh, played in Elegy by veteran actor Ben Kingsley, is a celebrity intellectual, a professor of literature, an author, a theater reviewer for The New Yorker. In a charming introductory scene, we see him speaking about his new book on the Charlie Rose show. The book lays out Kepesh's vision of sex in American life, torn between the poles of Puritan society and that other, lesser-known colonial outpost, Merry Mount (an episode of American history recounted in Howard Hanson’s opera of that name). Things have changed for Kepesh since the 60s and 70s, when Roth was first writing about him, and Coixet accompanies the character’s narration of how he seduces his female students by focusing in on a sign posted in the hall by his classroom, with the campus’s sexual harassment hotline number (a detail, like so many in the film, taken more or less directly from Roth's book). Kepesh is now careful to wait to approach his quarry until after he turns in his grades, by giving a cocktail party for his class.

Coixet’s screenplay, by Nicholas Meyer (who also adapted Roth's novel The Human Stain), captures the intensely introspective tone of Roth’s prose, with a minimum of clumsy interior monologue, mostly in the charming interaction of Kepesh (Ben Kingsley) with his best friend George, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet (Dennis Hopper). Both men married in their youth and both have been serial seducers of younger women, but George has stayed with his wife. Kepesh’s latest conquest is Consuela Castillo (Penélope Cruz), a daughter of conservative Cuban immigrants, and from their first encounter, Kepesh recognizes that she is different – he confesses himself enchanted by her, even without sex.

The thing about Roth's writing that either infuriates or amazes, depending on the reader, is its unrelentingly unapologetic maleness. Perhaps inevitably, the female directorial perspective has softened that tone, the edge in Kepesh's libido that leads him to want to control and abuse Consuela, and Roth's tendency toward the outré. At one point in the novel, Kepesh licks Consuela's menstrual blood off her body while in the shower, something that is obliquely referred to in the movie through a plot detail about Consuela's tampon. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Roth wanted his novel's quasi-abusive fellatio scene to make it into the film in a graphic way, something that Coixet declined to do.

Other Reviews:

Washington Post | Los Angeles Times | TIME | New York Times
Salon | The New Yorker | Rotten Tomatoes

What Coixet has made is something other than a Philip Roth novel, and in the last half-hour or so, the movie becomes too weepy and sentimental for my taste as Coixet veers away from the qualities that make Roth's book so Rothian. Not to ruin either book or movie with spoilers, but the book's ending is much more complicated than the movie's, which turns the story from a dark uncertainty to a predictable Hollywood finality. That being said, the performances are all good, beginning with Kingsley, who said in New York Magazine that he played the role very close to himself. Cruz ends up at her most radiant and sexy, after an opening look that is, intentionally, a little fussy. Even without that fellatio scene, what she has done in this movie in terms of vulnerability was courageous.

Dennis Hopper manages, for once, not to come across as too weird and is actually charming and funny. Patricia Clarkson, as the older woman who visits Kepesh regularly for no-string-attached sex, is an equally repugnant female counterpart to Kingsley. The most unexpected performance comes from Peter Sarsgaard as Kepesh's estranged son, Kenny, a character much more fully developed in the novel. Nervous, restless, judgmental, he fidgets his way through his own problems, hoping only not to become like his father. It is precisely that, of course, he is doomed to become, as he confesses that he, too, has been cheating on his wife. Coixet has an eye for form and color, arranging scenes that are gorgeously shot by Jean-Claude Larrieu, although handheld shots, a little jiggly, are overused.

Elegy opens in Washington today, August 22, at the E Street Cinema.

Excerpt from Elegy, directed by Isabel Coixet

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