Elegy / Interview with Isabel Coixet
Sunday, August 24, 2008
The male focus has not been obliterated -- Nicholas Meyer has crafted the script and Ben Kingsley as Kepesh is still center stage - but it comes at us less as a first person narrative. In a sense, we are seeing Kepesh's male point of view filtered through the female perspective. So the object of Kepesh's desire, young Consuela (Penelope Cruz), is less objectified. The result is a more balanced tale of love, lust, desire and the specter of mortality.
The film is smartly designed for adults not only in terms of the direct dealings with sex but also in terms of the complexity of the characters. I was going to say maturity of the characters but then I realized that Kepesh is complex but not necessarily mature. He's intelligent and contemplates his actions yet when faced with his passion for Consuela he turns out to be anything but rational and smart. In many ways she is the more mature one. Kepesh, on the other hand, grows jealous as their relationship deepens and can't seem to accept the possibility for happiness. But director Coixet and writer Meyer allow us to see Kepesh with all his flaws and vulnerabilities.
Kingsley, of course, is perfectly suited to the role. He's an aging lion, proud even arrogant and not really willing to confront his coming loss of virility. In contrast to many of the recent professors on screen (Dennis Quaid in Smart People , Richard Jenkins in The Visitor , Jeff Daniels in The Squid and the Whale ), Kingsley's Kepesh strikes one as a passionate and learned man, successful in his career. It's his knowledge and assurance in the academic world that attracts Consuela. She's not looking for some young hunk, she wants a man that she can learn from and who will appreciate her. As played by Cruz, Consuela is beguiling with a distant sadness. She's also a bit elusive. She is more than just an object of desire yet she never lets us completely inside her character.
Ben Kingsley and Dennis Hopper in Elegy (Red Envelope Entertainment)
Also noteworthy in supporting roles are Dennis Hopper and Patricia Clarkson. Clarkson, as a steady sex partner for Kepesh, gets a sharply written scenes telling Kepesh off and warning him not to take her for granted while Hopper gets cast against type as Kepesh's friend and fellow academic.
Director Isabel Coixet spoke to me about the challenge of bringing a well-known author's work to the screen.
Beth Accomando: What did you feel was the greatest challenge in bringing Philip Roth's story to the screen?
Isabel Coixet: I really think he's one of the better writers of his generation at the same time the most admired writers can be the most difficult to take it to the screen. When I read the novel when it came out six years ago I thought some day a filmmaker will do a film of this book but I never thought it was going to be me. But then almost two years ago I got the script I thought it was a really smart adaptation. I knew Penelope [Cruz] was really passionate about it and her enthusiasm was really contagious, so I said yes because it was a challenge because when you read the story of Elegy you think, "Oh my god, a college professor of sixty and a young girl from Cuba! Oh my god this is a really old story." But I think the point in Elegy is it's the same story but through a new perspective and new eyes. I think all the archetypes we are seeing are a bit different. This woman may be young, and maybe she doesn't know as much about music, painting, and poetry as him but I think she's much more intelligent and wiser than him.
Beth Accomando: I like that this film has two very strong female perspectives on a very male story.
Isabel Coixet: Yeah well half of the world are men so we better try to understand them since they are not doing a lot to understand women. But I think it is a very universal story. The whole film is this man facing the fear of dying, the fear of aging, the fear of relationships. But I think the two women in the story -- the one played by Penelope Cruz and the character played by Patricia Clarkson -- they really know what they want and I think this guy who's sixty-something, he's acting like he's fourteen and he's thinking like he's seven. That happens a lot in the world.
Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz as a professor and his student in Elegy (Red Envelope Entertainment)
Beth Accomando: Kingsley and Cruz play superbly off each other. Can you talk about their chemistry?
Isabel Coixet: I think chemistry is something a director can't direct. Either it clicks or it doesn't click. They met the first day that we were rehearsing and I knew Ben Kingsley was born to play Kebesh, and I knew Penelope was born to play Consuela, but I have to say that I was really anxious because it was the first time I was going to see them together. But from the first rehearsal, it was amazing. The chemistry was there. I'm telling you I was really relieved.
Beth Accomando: I also loved your casting of Dennis Hopper as Kebesh's friend. He doesn't often get to play an academic.
Isabel Coixet: It was very strange doing the casting of the movie. You know when you are casting a movie you do a list of the people you think are perfect. Dennis was at the top of my list because I knew he could portray this Pulitzer Prize poet perfectly. I know he's an artist, he's an amazing photographer, and he has this charisma. Also from the first moment Ben and he were together talking in a coffee shop, it was the first time they met on set but it was like they were best pals. I don't want to ruin the plot of the movie but Dennis' last scene in the movie, I thought I was watching a miracle. I felt blessed that I was a witness to that scene
Beth Accomando: How did you want the film to look?
Isabel Coixet: Well I'm also the camera operator of the film and on four films I worked with the same director of photography Jean-Claude Larrieu. We talked about colors and emotions, and the soul and core of every scene but we never talk about lighting. I think the film has a somber quality. I think the idea behind the camera style is that you're a witness of what's happening. You share the intimacy of those characters and we work together in a very strange harmony. Also there was something that was very important to me. I want people to watch this film in twenty years and I don't want the feeling that it was shot twenty years ago. When you put stuff in your film that's really now, that's current it sometimes makes film look dated. My hope is that in twenty years you will look at it and say this is happening now too.
Beth Accomando: So you feel it taps into something universal and timeless?
Isabel Coixet: (1230) Yes. Life is short. I think all those fears we have, it doesn't make any sense. I think is probably one of the messages of the film.
Beth Accomando: Roth has been described as a very masculine and American writer. Did you feel that you brought a fresh perspective being a woman and not American?
Isabel Coixet: I think when the material is good it doesn't matter where are you from. I was in college and I began to read Philip Roth, and that was many, many years ago. For me he is not a foreign writer. My next film is in Japan. I mean you put me in Alaska and I'll do a movie there. I'm not someone very attached to my roots or anything. I need some kind of distance to tell the story. For me for instance, I live in Barcelona but it is very difficult for me to make a film there because the daily life is too present and I need some distance. I always need that kind of distance to really feel excited about a film and a story. I'm a strange outsider so you put me in Mongolia and I'll do a film there. But I feel I really understand Roth as much as someone born in the Upper West Side. Also, there's a moment when you can respect a writer too much. When I think it's dangerous for the film. So there was a moment when I thought this is a book where I really know his world but now I have to forget that. We're working from his book but what's important is the film. I was very conscious to understand Roth's work but also at some point I felt, let's get rid of it. I spoke with Philip Roth. He was very clear about some things that were crucial part in the book, all those comments about Woodstock and America in the 60s. At that moment I didn't think that they were really relevant for the plot and for the film that we were doing. Also the end of the movie is different from the end of the book. I am really proud of the end of the film. It gives the characters an opportunity. It gives the audience a hope.
Companion viewing: Volver, Sexy Beast, My Life Without Me