Aged Lothario's terror and redemption

Elegy: 113 minutes. Rated: M. Director: Isabel Coixet. Starring: Ben Kingsley, Penelope Cruz, Dennis Hopper, Patricia Clarkson, Peter Sarsgaard, Deborah Harry 

Elegy, Penelope Cruz, Ben KingsleyReaders tend to love or loathe Philip Roth, and I am firmly in the former camp. But even I was not enamoured with his 2001 novella, The Dying Animal.

It is the third of Roth's books featuring David Kepesh as narrator: a New York literature professor and highbrow celebrity who is self-indulgent, narcissistic, and driven by the urge to sexually conquer (I choose the verb deliberately) as many women as possible. To help you get the picture, in his first fictional incarnation Kepesh metamorphosised into a giant breast.

There are those critics who think these qualities are universal to Roth's men. Not so. His favourite alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, is preoccupied by sex, yes, but by much else also, notably a raging grief for his own lost family and childhood. Kepesh in contrast has shucked off everything but his own desire.

For this reason I was a little cautious about seeing the new film, Elegy, based on The Dying Animal. Particularly given how disfigured one of Roth's great novels, The Human Stain, was in its translation to screen. However this is one of those rare instances where the film is more successful than the book.

The Dying Animal relates the story of the ageing Kepesh's sexual obsession with a young Cuban student, Consuela Castillo. Well, not so much with Consuela as with her 'magnificent breasts'. The book is told in first-person, so all that we see and hear is mediated by Kepesh. And given Kepesh's self-obsession, we get a very clear portrait of him while everyone else, particularly Consuela, remains a cipher.

The nature of film makes such telescoping impossible. All the characters are three-dimensional, and Consuela is up there on screen in her own right, not merely as the fantasy of Kepesh. Given she is played by an actor as gorgeous and dignified as Penelope Cruz is in this film makes that distinctive reality all the more convincing.

Film also demands a different emotional register. The abrasive cynicism which characterises Roth's novel would not have transferred well into the emotional intensity of cinema, and Elegy's director, Isabel Coixet (and it can't have hurt that she is a woman), wisely chose to make her story redemptive rather than ironic.

In The Dying Animal the damage done is to Kepesh's sexual ego. A man who has spent a life dedicated to sexual freedom finds himself ensnared by desire for a woman he is convinced will leave him for the kind of young man he once was. Kepesh rants about the ongoing significance of the Great American Sexual Liberation while denouncing his own stupidity for falling, at age 62, into the oldest trap there is: the trap of 'attachment'.

It requires careful reading to detect the fear behind Kepesh's bravado, but in the film his terror is plain to see. Ben Kingsley, bald and muscular, fits the image of an ageing Lothario, and his rhetoric on independence mimics his novelistic twin's. But the rigidity with which he holds himself, and the panic in his eyes, makes clear that carnality has not given him what he needs.

The suffering attendant on age and loss is not Kepesh's personal drama in the film, but returned to its rightful place as a universal human predicament. Consuela does finally leave Kepesh after he fails to attend her graduation party (and publicly acknowledge their relationship), but on New Year's Eve 1999 she pays him an unexpected visit. Now terribly ill with breast cancer, she wants her former lover to photograph her before she undergoes a mastectomy.

The scene bombs in the book (as Linda Grant wrote in The Guardian, 'Every woman I have told this to bursts out laughing'), but in the film Cruz and Kingsley invest it with a tender poignancy. The tears Consuela cries are for her illness, yes, but they evoke the loss of youth and beauty which we all, no exception, undergo. Time takes every man and woman hostage, whether we extol freedom or seek companionship.

Perhaps the differences between book and film are made clearest in the change of title from The Dying Animal to Elegy. Roth's materialist log of masculine decline has been humanised into a mournful lament for the dead, that is, for us all.

Neither work shares in the hope for joyful rebirth which Christians have just celebrated at Easter, but Coixet's film bears testament to the beauty that can nevertheless be found in exploring sickness, old age, and death as a human tragedy.

Sarah KanowskiSarah Kanowski is a writer, and a producer with ABC Radio National.

Topic tags: Elegy, Isabel Coixet, Ben Kingsley, Penelope Cruz, The Dying Animal, Philip Roth



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