Elegy: Death Becomes Them

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Joe Lederer / Samuel Goldwyn Films

Ben Kingsley, left, as David Kepesh and Penelope Cruz as Consuela Castillo in Elegy

There is — or so we like to think — a natural order to mortality. As Philip Roth observes in The Dying Animal, of which Elegy is a very faithful adaptation, we expect our grandparents to be the first to go, then our parents, then (unimaginably) ourselves — a very long time in the future.

This is not a matter David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley) particularly likes to dwell on. And why should he? He's a fit man in his sixties, a Columbia professor and a minor "public intellectual" (hateful phrase, that one) in New York. (Indeed, the film opens with him in conversation with Charlie Rose, who does an excellent imitation of himself.) Dave has a convenient, purely sexual relationship with Carolyn (Patricia Clarkson), who gives a lovely, knowing performance as a woman of a certain age. He has a good friendship with a poet named George (a wise and excellent Dennis Hopper). Polymathically, he has art, music, literature and photography to fill such idle hours as remain to him. And girls, of course — notably his students, whom he never tries to bed until he has given them their final grades. As far as he (and we) can see, he could go on like this for years to come.

Until his wandering eye settles upon the astonishingly beautiful, much younger Consuela Castillo (Penelope Cruz, whose performance is entrancingly eager yet reserved). They enter upon an affair, which is only slightly marred by his jealousy, which is partly ex post facto (he takes an unusual interest in her previous lovers) and partly contemporary (who's that guy you're having dinner with tonight?) and by the fact that, despite age and cultural differences, she truly loves him. He prefers to concentrate on mentoring her and, speaking frankly, on her breasts, which he not unreasonably regards as the most gorgeous he has ever seen.

Up to a point the love affair proceeds predictably — even including their breakup (he has, as you might expect, a commitment issue). She leaves him. He mourns perhaps excessively. She, astonishingly, returns to him some years later. And here both the Roth novel and Isabel Coixet's film (written by Nicholas Meyer) take a truly memorable turn. For she is gravely ill and living alone with the possibility of premature death. She wants Kepesh to take erotic photographs of her before the surgeon's knife destroys her beauty. Does she want more from him? If so, can he respond to her need?

This is a matter both film and book leave ambiguous. Because, in some sense — and I know this is going to sound strange — it is really no more than a plot point, something that plausibly carries us to the matter that, in recent years, has most obsessively concerned Philip Roth. Even his most casual readers know him as our only great erotic novelist, a man who spent his early career both hilariously and heartbreakingly exploring the contortions of the spirit that our sexuality imposes on us. Truly, to borrow the title of an earlier Roth novel, he has been our "Professor of Desire." He has done so with a truthfulness to the mess of it — its unseemly secretions and unspoken secrets — that's unprecedented in literature. Now in his seventies, himself afflicted with illnesses that diminish performance, but not desire, he has taken to writing, brutally and wistfully, about what happens when the irresistible life force (always defined as sex) meets the immovable object, which is life's inevitable end.

All right, it's the old Eros-Thanatos trope. But no one has addressed it with Roth's passionate realism. Or with his conviction that the result of this conflict can only be the terrible muddle that finally elbows aside the previously preoccupying sexual shambles. That's especially true of The Dying Animal, when mortality settles on the wrong person at the wrong time. There are things wrong with Coixet's movie. Ben Kingsley is, of course, a fine actor, but in this instance there seems to me something smug, held back, in his work. Roth's Kepesh, at least for a time, has more spritzing fun with his minor celebrity life than Kingsley's does. The latter seems insufficiently surprised and confused by the turn his life takes. And Coixet has a tendency to linger on some of her scenes, giving them an unnecessary, darkly portentous quality. Some of this story's effectiveness derives from the fact that even severely threatened life often goes waywardly forward, immune to portent. There's also a non-Rothian reconciliatory note — a sort of emotional consolation prize — in Kepesh's relationship with his awful son — that I could have done without.

But that said, this is a good, serious and absorbing movie — especially, perhaps, for a reviewer who is roughly Kepesh's age and, of course, eagerly evading the issues his story forces up. Death in the movies usually presents itself as the end of a bullet's path. Or, alternatively, in an inspiring deathbed scene, where the victim appears to be suffering no more than a bad case of la grippe. It's important to see the threat of death as predictably unpredictable, another fine mess we heedlessly fall into. And that Elegy does very powerfully.