A Doomed Man Fearing Old Age Finds Consolation in Art
Originally the word "elegy" was used for a lyric poem lamenting a death; now it is often used to mean a sad text of any kind. So by choosing Elegy as the title for her new film, director Isabel Coixet shifts the mood of Philip Roth’s notoriously sexually explicit novel on which it is based from a relentless analysis of libidinous exploits in a man’s attempt to prove himself, to a somewhat frothier yet often moving depiction of incomplete love and loss.
The book’s title, The Dying Animal, is a quotation from W.B. Yeats’ poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium,’ in which the poet describes his soul as "sick with desire/And fastened to a dying animal…," a description that fits philosophy professor David Kepesh, the main character in novel and film very aptly. His ‘sickness’ is rooted in a dread of growing old (he is in his early sixties), which he combats by seducing his prettiest female students, always taking the precaution of waiting until after grades have been allotted. His nemesis appears in the figure of a beautiful Cuban student Consuela Castillo (Penelope Cruz) with whom he becomes obsessed.
The theme of aging is portrayed with wry humor in scenes where Kepesh (Ben Kingsley) and his poet friend of longstanding George O’Hearn (in a brilliant performance by Dennis Hopper) play sweaty squash and indulge in regular sessions of soul-searching over lattes in a corner of their favorite café.
Old age is creeping up on both of them, and in fact sweeps in with macabre vengeance when George suffers a stroke, just after having been introduced by his old buddy in ‘identikit’ clichés at a book launch, and is left partially paralysed and demented.
Black humor is in fact never far away with Philip Roth, and is masterfully condensed in a scene of George in bed after his stroke, where he summons enough epileptic energy to kiss first his wife and then Kepesh voluptuously on the mouth. "I wonder who he thought he was kissing," muses the wife knowingly.
But it is, of course, Ben Kingsley as Kepesh who carries the film. He succeeds magnificently as the deeply flawed personality, by his enormous screen presence and overarching ability to convey a multitude of emotions through body language and facial expression.
And while the gulf between the original novel – with its manifold layers of narration – and the screen adaptation can not be adequately bridged, Kingsley comes mesmerisingly close to conveying the fear of growing old which is eating at his soul and which he comes to believe can be assuaged and even halted by his overwhelming desire for the young woman, who bears the symbolic name Consuela, Spanish for consolation.
Throughout the film she seems to move back and forth between the realms of the very real flesh and an ethereal, allegorical world to which, try as he may, Kepesh has no access. He can not be cured by her of his sickness, because it is his relationship with himself which is ailing. Penelope Cruz, whose Spanish beauty is overlaid with a fey-like, distant quality in her acting, perfectly embodies the young woman who gives her lover all she can, but is powerless to turn him into the kind of "regular" boyfriend she thinks she would like, who would, for example, fit easily into a graduation party with her friends and family. Their relationship is hopelessly caught in a double bind – his inability to enter her world, even though he hopes for salvation through her, and her equal inability to provide him with redemption.
One other screen appearance deserves more special mention: Patricia Clarkson plays Carolyn, a book editor and Kepesh’s lover of 20 years, providing sex and solace with no ties whenever she is passing through New York. The two seem to have perfected the post-modern relationship based on mutual non-commitment… until Carolyn discovers an unmistakable clue of another woman. Kepesh typically tries to wriggle out by lying, but both know the cord has been severed. Clarkson is utterly convincing in her portrayal of a woman who dares to be honest with herself, and who lays bare Kepesh’s self-deception.
Kepesh is a man doomed, which makes the ending a bit much, as a tear-jerker in which the elegiac tone falls over itself backwards to get centre stage.
How much more satisfactory is Yeats’s confrontation of aging. Unlike Kepesh, whom we can never take seriously as an intellectual or academic, Yeats’s "aged man", who knows he is "but a paltry thing", knowing death is near, calls upon the sages of Byzantium to gather him "into the artifice of eternity". It is in art, not lust, that man finds consolation and perhaps even remembrance.