Since Portnoy’s Complaint Philip Roth has been our national chronicler of horny male vigor. Not because such characters are a constant in his work (they aren’t), but because they boast a vividness that verges, just barely, on the cartoonish. And because they are smart—and, amazingly, it helps.
Ben Kingsley, as David Kepesh, plays one of these brainy skirtchasers in Elegy, the new movie based on Roth’s 2001 novel The Dying Animal. Kingsley is very good in the role. His skin is tanned the color of peanut brittle, his broad chest is tight as a drum, his shaved head casts a glare. He looks lubed.
And he is good at seduction. Well-practiced. Also, unscrupulous. Two older women sitting in front of me at the theater shake their heads in disapproval throughout the film. When Kepesh sights his soon-to-be-seduced student Consuela in class, a copy of The Pleasure of the Text squashed to her bosom? They shake their heads. When Kepesh woos Consuela with Goya monographs in order to fuck her? Shake, shake. When Kepesh lies to avoid a graduation party thrown by Consuela’s parents? Vigorous shaking.
The two heads are like metronomes keeping time for the movie. This happens because Kepesh is predictable. And because Kepesh is predictable, he ceases to be the main interest of the film. This isn’t true of The Dying Animal, in which the professor’s internal monologue keeps his own absorbing flux at our attention. But when images stand in for words, as they do in a movie, the locus of intrigue shifts easily to whatever catches the audience’s eye. That distinction, in Elegy, belongs to Consuela.
Consuela is that classic literary type, the Precocious Young Girl. It is a difficult character to write and one whose existence is contingent on a secondary character: the beholder who is inevitably an older male intellectual. Because of this, the task of summoning a precocious young girl is a two-step feat. This increases the odds of failure. There would be no Maisie without a Sir Claude, no Lolita without Humbert Humbert.
Roth, it goes without saying, is very good at the male half of the equation. The surprise is how good he is at working out the female half, too. The Consuela of The Dying Animal is a bit of a freak. I always pictured her as the infanta of Las Meninas, blown up 200% and with the boobs of Murakami’s Hiropon sculpture. Consuela is also, in the novel, quite young, 24 years old. Penelope Cruz, who plays Consuela in the movie, is ten years senior. This is fine. In fact, it’s as it must be. Consuela is intelligent and foreign; Kepesh sees in her a certain gravity that requires an older actress to simulate.
The one problem with casting Cruz is that she is comely in ways everyone can recognize, whereas the whole point of Consuela is that she’s an odd beauty, a girl who calls for a particular type—an intellectual, an aesthete—to notice her. The Consuela of the text is supposed to be regal. A European kind of regality, with a touch of the moony inbred look that all the royals eventually took on. She has an ovoid forehead, Roth tells us. Like a Brancusi. It is entirely possible that the casting director’s idea of such distinctions is less refined than Roth’s.
If Consuela’s beauty is meant to be inscrutable, so is her intelligence. Like all precocious young girls in literature, she is too clever not to recognize her own power and sensitive enough to be flattered by the affections of an impressive man. It is crucial, however, that Consuela not recognize the scope of her control. This increases that power in her beholder’s eyes.
Consuela’s precocity in the The Dying Animal is not intellectual. She’s no genius. Her appeal is a question of bearing. “I saw her and was tremendously impressed by her comportment,” Kepesh tells us. The professor is drawn, specifically, to a mixture of innocence and self-awareness in Consuela that shifts in proportions he can never quite determine. In one scene of Roth’s book, Kepesh plays Beethoven’s Seventh on the piano for his student, who play-acts at conducting “somewhat like a performing child” while Kepesh eyes her boobs. He wonders: does she know what she is doing? Is it all a design? “For all I know,” he thinks, “maybe there was nothing the least bit childish about it and to excite me by way of the mock conducting was why she did it.” The point, Roth implies, is that the professor can’t tell for sure. In matters of art and literature Consuela may be deferential to her lover, but in all else, she’s opaque to Kepesh, and therefore beyond his possession. She is unbeholden; he becomes possessive. Trouble brews.
Elegy skips the Beethoven scene and several others that are key to the character of Consuela in The Dying Animal. Does it matter? Only if you hold the movie to the same standard as you do the novel. Which you don’t. What the movie does well is turn Kepesh’s imaginative worship of Consuela into visual paeans. We get lush close-ups of Cruz: Cruz in bed, Cruz on the beach, the breasts of Cruz and her darkly-arched eyebrows. You could do a whole lot worse, even if it’s not as substantive as the novel’s circling descriptions of the girl—circling because she’s unclassifiable and unprecedented, and can only be approached in terms of what she is not: not like the rest of the class, not a demi-adolescent, not a slouching, unkempt, “like”-ridden girl. You can see Kepesh scratching his head as he drools.
In both novel and film, the core of Kepesh’s fascination with Consuela—and ours too—is this: she is an object not just of sexual attraction but of intellectual interpretation. She asks to be theorized, while her opacity renders her unsolvable. She’s a permanent puzzle. Thinking and fucking, we know, are Kepesh’s staple pleasures. Young Consuela appears like a miracle to appease him in both.
The girl herself is not immune to the delights of erotic glorification. Who would be? Kepesh is a famous professor of literature. His vocation involves the worship of art objects. It is not a difficult leap to make from one occupation to the next. At one point in the movie, Kepesh tells Consuela that she—she!—is a work of art. To witness Kepesh’s worship of Consuela is to witness Roth’s relish in his girl-creation. I do not speak for all women when I say this, but in reading the book it is possible to feel vicariously worshipped for nothing more than sheer femaleness.
What the professor doesn’t rehearse is the possibility of reciprocation. Kepesh cannot accept that the bright Consuela might see him in terms similar to those in which he sees her. Once he recognizes the mutuality of the transaction, he sees that she is at an advantage. Consuela is able to treat Kepesh the way a billionaire treats cash: not with contempt, exactly, but with a blitheness that hurts worse. You can’t blame her, of course. It’s Kepesh’s fault. And he unravels, suffering all the ancillary sexual emotions that we usually associate with women: self-loathing, clinginess, the doubting of one’s pleasures. As these things happen onscreen, I notice that the men on either side of me, both alone in the theater, are crying.
They wouldn’t get weepy over the book. The Dying Animal, like many of Roth’s novels, is brutal. The title change suggests the nature of the adjustments involved in bringing Roth to the screen: mainly, softening the pornographic into the erotic. The “dying animal” is from Yeats—”Consume my heart away; sick with desire/ And fastened to a dying animal/ It knows not what it is.” In the poem, an old man journeys to Byzantium and stares at the young in one another’s arms—a little dirty, but mostly elegiac. Attached to Roth’s novel, it becomes dirtier. And so a quick title change is ordered, and the rude mammalian fucking of The Dying Animal becomes Elegy‘s lovemaking. Consuela’s fury at being forced into a blowjob becomes a shot of Penelope Cruz in postcoital repose. If the book gives off a seamy sex-odor, the movie smells only of beaches and cologne. Any musk is just the effluence of all those tasteful books in Kepesh’s library.