The Dying Art
by Michael Joshua Rowin
Dir. Isabel Coixet, U.S., Samuel Goldwyn Films
Philip Roth is a generation older than the baby boomers, but it’s significant that David Kepesh, the protagonist and confessor of The Dying Animal—the 2001 novel that is now the fourth Roth work to be adapted for the screen, under the gentler title Elegy—states that the sexual revolution of the 60s has been a central influence in his life, and that it encouraged him to leave his wife and family for his true desire: free love, i.e., no-frills fucking. Spanish director Isabel Coixet and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (who previously penned the film version of Roth’s The Human Stain) emphasize Kepesh’s boomer credentials to an even greater degree than their source material’s author, beginning Elegy with an interview of Kepesh by Charlie Rose. Kepesh, a college literature professor and radio show host, is on to promote his latest book, a study of how America’s roots are not solely puritanical, that an early colony—a sort of bizarro Plymouth—reveled in paganism and debauchery before being quashed by repressive traditionalists. This colony offers a model of sexual “freedom” that serves Kepesh well during his generation’s brief Summer of Love and beyond, but it’s fitting that Rose equates its founder to Hugh Hefner. Behind the veneer of freedom lies immature, self-satisfied emotional isolation, and that’s where the sexually arrested Kepesh resides.
That Ben Kingsley is cast, surprisingly, as Kepesh is also significant. Replacing Roth’s unmistakably Semitic alter ego—like Portnoy and Zuckerman, one of the author’s signature postwar avatars of Jewish-American male neuroses—with an actor exemplifying Anglo uprightness and capital C culture (and whose history of Jewish and Middle Eastern roles nevertheless allows for a certain amount of ethnic wiggle room), Coixet and Meyer have subtly made Kepesh’s ensuing dilemma that of the old white world’s thinly veiled sexual hypocrisy getting carried kicking and screaming into modern, moral evolution. Kepesh finds himself falling in love with what should have been another classroom conquest, Cuban-American student Consuela Castillo (Penelope Cruz, a little too old for this role, but so what?). Jealous and paranoid of the thought of a younger man taking her away but unable to overcome his fear of commitment to a woman who seems to truly love him, he cruelly breaks off with her, descending into navel-gazing self-pity until he realizes his post-married life has been one of uncompromising egotism disguised as “independence.”
Conventional wisdom says that Elegy will prove hopelessly unfashionable to audiences and critics. It’s bourgeois, mostly humorless, and arrives in the trappings of highbrow Literatoor (as Roth himself deemed it in The Great American Novel), which may rope in the Brideshead Revisited crowd before disappointing them with a May-December romance from a male point of view, a potentially embarrassing throwback that usually imparts the valorization, rather than dissection, of out-of-whack sexual politics. Yet Elegy is also a throwback in the best sense. It’s honest, beautifully subdued, and, up until a lame departure from Roth’s original ending, tough. Despite frequently relying on a too-delicate solo piano score to impart emotional fragility, Coixet’s imagining of Roth’s novella isn’t soft-focused Upper East Side melodrama, as in the terrible serious scenes from The Wackness, nor is it the sheltered despair of the worst of Woody Allen. It’s something else entirely, a film that applies what Kepesh calls “practical criticism” to an aging man’s fears, insecurities, and failings in terrifically conceived scenes that are both human and sad, traits that inevitably lead back to one another.
At the center of Elegy’s critical approach toward Kepesh—and haters of Roth, the frequent target of misogyny charges, will have a hard time accepting this—is this entitled protagonist’s objectification of woman, which hides under his outer layer of refinement. Kepesh’s obsession with female beauty is that of a collector: the first compliment he pays Consuela is to compare her to a Goya model. Then, flirting while explaining to her the fundamentals of Renaissance perspective, he says of the main figure in Velasquez’s Las Meninas, “She’s the center of attention . . . [the others are] ghostly reflections in the mirror.” And after the two have completed their mutual seduction he openly tells Consuela she’s a “work of art”—her breasts are the pièce de resistance—and photographs her as an unobtainable beauty even as he ignores her pleadings of “I love you.” Poet friend George O’Hearn (Dennis Hopper) warns Kepesh of his unhealthy fixation: “Beautiful women are invisible. We’re so dazzled by the outside that we never make it inside. We never see the actual person.” And indeed, only until a reunion with Consuela that forces him to see her not as a superficially perfect “work of art”—she’s about to undergo surgery for breast cancer that will leave her disfigured—he realizes that during his time with her he “didn’t understand what [he] saw.”
Elegy is all about seeing, perspective. Its too-tasteful environs—contemporary theater productions, upscale mansions, racquet ball courts, overcast private beaches—may be off-putting, but Kepesh’s tale is placed in modest context, told from his own vantage point and balanced with that of those around him. Thus it arrives at its true meaning, which is that the male ego deifies beauty and relationship-hopping to stave off loneliness and the entropy of time. There are wonderful moments when Coixet holds her camera on an actor to encourage our exploration of him or her instead of rendering every move, especially Kepesh’s, an obvious, overblown revelation. When Kepesh initially flirts with Consuela at an end-of-semester party at his apartment, Coixet stays on a two shot of Kepesh sneaking a sniff of the student’s black mane of hair—which will in retrospect prove ironic—rather than going to a close-up magnification of nose-to-coiffure; when he receives a New Year’s Eve phone message from Consuela asking him to see her for the first time since their break-up, the conventional cut to Kepesh’s startled reaction is replaced by Kepesh keeping his back toward the camera in long shot, only a minute, nearly unregistered hesitation of his head-hung body displaying stunned and humbled surprise.
Coixet’s instincts are rewarded; she has a lot of talent to work with in front of the camera. Some of our best screen thespians form a chorus of dissatisfaction around Kepesh, their characters all having been let down by his delusions. No-strings-attached lover and former student Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson) is Kepesh’s abettor and victim as they drag each other down in a marriage of convenience created by their inability to sustain emotionally fulfilling relationships or own up to the indignities of growing older. The first real conversation Kepesh shares with her after he admits to his ruined romance with Consuela is, without big dramatic fireworks, a heartbreaking dialogue on regret for the past and fear of the future, and Clarkson’s melancholic striptease to a scratchy jazz record (“sometimes loneliness comes to call” go the lyrics) evokes a tender sense of her romantic battle scars and unapologetically vigorous physicality. Kenny (Peter Sarsgaard), the son Kepesh walked out on, is all unconcealed anger and bitterness until he’s in the same situation his father once found himself, in an affair, contemplating leaving his wife and family for another woman and her children. Sarsgaard’s performance deftly melds oedipal bitterness with a disintegrating moral superiority, and Kenny’s tentative, wounded reconciliation with Kepesh—who, in giving his son the good advice not to jump from one marriage-prison to another, draws on both his wise and foolish decisions in light of his mistake with Consuela—communicates the necessary but constantly unfinished project of mending the past while also longing for it.
Hopper’s George O’Hearn, however, is Elegy’s key supporting character. He hasn’t been let down by Kepesh, just dismayed at his colleague and friend’s refusal to do like him and compartmentalize his life. Unlike Kepesh, George has sustained his marriage as he philanders with his students. His method isn’t as “honest” as Kepesh’s, but he never makes more of what he knows is a one-off thing (for teacher and pupil alike), and toward film’s end, while nursing the Consuela-destroyed Kepesh back to health, he admits to finding love with his wife once again. But then he dies (somewhat too tidily for narrative purposes) and Kepesh is left once again facing the frightening but unavoidable specter of death. Kingsley and Hopper’s scenes together constitute some of Elegy’s loveliest moments, and in Coixet’s hands their strange intimacy—confiding to each other about the indignities of men their age participating “in the carnal aspects of the human comedy,” laughing at Kepesh’s bumbling jealousy, even kissing on the mouth during George’s last gasp moment of affection before succumbing to a stroke—is unembarrassingly natural.
So Kepesh “learns” from those around him; yet Coixet conveys the journey not through didactic, finger-wagging moralism but through what’s slowly becoming the dying art of dramatic humanism. Kepesh’s reunion with Consuela, when she tells him the news of her cancer and the imminent procedure for which she’s already begun to snip off her hair, is masterfully accomplished. Without visual clichés or musical cues, Coixet creates the perfect contemplative atmosphere in Kepesh’s usually cold apartment for their hushed conversation (Jean Claude Larrieu’s dark cinematography never tilts into stylish bombast), and the two reengage with one another on the common ground of vulnerability and the unpitying ferocity of physical finitude. But though Kepesh and Consuela find each other again, there’s still the question as to whether the former’s perverse need to “possess” beauty persists even amidst his acceptance of love and death, and it’s only here that Coixet and Meyer really betray Roth. Unconventional and haunting, The Dying Animal’s last lines bring the nameless friend to whom Kepesh confesses his obsession—the character who functions as the reader’s offstage surrogate—finally out into the open as the protagonist is about to rush to the hospital to visit Consuela:
. . . . Look, there’s no time, I must run!
But I must. Someone has to be with her.
“She’ll find someone.”
She’s in terror. I’m going.
“Think about it. Think. Because if you go, you’re finished.”
It’s difficult to imagine how a film version of The Dying Animal might smoothly translate this device using the grammar of the cinema, but it doesn’t excuse Meyer from softening the ominous foreboding of Kepesh’s still unrelinquished obsession, fueled by the art owner-art object relationship the former lovers pick up again when Consuela asks Kepesh to photograph her topless torso before the surgeon’s knife forever changes her body. Roth ambiguously suggests that for all his improvements Kepesh still has to clear some serious personal hurdles to accept the responsibilities of love; Meyer’s version is now a tearful reunion—past issues resolved, Kepesh’s hang-up passed over—at Consuela’s hospital bed, with Elegy’s final image returning to the overcast beach where she and Kepesh formed some of their sweetest memories together. Regarding this mushy compromise Nick Pinkerton in indieWIRE is right in doubting the film’s ability to counterbalance “Kepesh’s forbidding interiority with what could broadly (and vaguely) be called ‘cinematic’ textures,” but what makes Elegy’s denouement so unsatisfactory is that up until then it largely has.
In working on a novella rather than a novel this time around Meyer avoids repeating the hatchet job he committed on The Human Stain in squeezing that epic, nonlinear ensemble piece into a tidy three-act structure—here the voice-overs aren’t stop-gaps of narrative information but frank glimpses into Kepesh’s mindset—and the effectiveness of Coixet’s dimly lit interiors and charged silences far outweigh her few missteps, such as resorting to images of falling dead leaves or an abandoned rolling racquet ball during Kingsley’s confrontation with mortality. This single pulled punch relegates Elegy to the status of a near triumph rather than a full one, but it nonetheless sets a great, and rare, example of truly mature and morally complex filmmaking.