Driven by Isabel Coixet's visually assured and deeply observant direction, Elegy charts the passionate relationship between a celebrated college professor and a young woman whose beauty both ravishes and destabilizes him. As their intimate connection transforms them--more than either could imagine--a charged sexual contest evolves into an indelible love story. With humanistic warmth, wry wit and erotic intensity, Elegy explores the power of beauty to blind, to reveal and to transform.
ON THE PRODUCTION
"Now I'm very vulnerable to female beauty...Everybody's defenseless against something, and
that's it for me. I see it and it blinds me to everything else." -- David Kepesh.
In directing Elegy, acclaimed Spanish director ISABEL COIXET (My Life With Me, The Secret Life of Words) becomes the first female filmmaker to take on the celebrated and controversial work of novelist Philip Roth, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in fiction. She brings to the job an intense concentration on the inner lives of her characters. The film presents the contest of passion between an extraordinary young woman--Consuela, played by PÉNELOPE CRUZ (Volver, All About My Mother)--and a sophisticated college professor--David Kepesh, played by BEN KINGSLEY (Gandhi, Sexy Beast)--without taking sides or making final judgments. What might easily be considered a masculine-oriented tale of seduction and its consequences becomes a penetrating investigation of the power of love and its lasting effects--both on the beauty and on the beholder.
"I'm at a point in my life where I try to understand people--to understand men," Coixet says. "In Elegy, David Kepesh tries to escape by focusing on sex; yet, at the end, through sex he finds love. I think it quite moving." In pivotal ways, the director sees Cruz's less experienced Consuela as the more powerful one: "She is the stronger of the two. She wants what she wants, and she is not ashamed."
Self-assured Professor Kepesh seems to know everything, but in the face of consuming passion, he has a lot to learn. In the very first scene of the movie, we meet him in full celebrity mode, appearing on The Charlie Rose Show to promote his provocative new book on the hidden origins of American hedonism. An outspoken advocate of "Sexual Happiness", Kepesh evokes its roots in the little-known colonial community of "Merrymount," founded by rebel Thomas Morton only thirty miles from Plymouth Rock. A haven for rebels, outsiders and freethinkers, the settlement soon disappeared. As Kepesh declares: "The Puritans shut them down." It took until the 1960s--the decade of the professor's own coming of age--for their suppressed message of liberation to explode again on American soil. Wry, articulate and playful, Kepesh defines himself as a proud spiritual descendant of these pioneer rebels. Yet, in dealing with "the carnal aspects of the human comedy," even a longtime rebel lives by rules. There is a price to be paid when even the boldest rules are broken. There may also be, as he comes to discover, a deep and permanent reward.
What happens to a man like Kepesh--a serial seducer of considerable skill who loves women but never lets them come too close--when confronted head-on by the extraordinary Consuela Castillo. A woman whose astonishing raven-haired beauty both transfixes and transforms, this daughter of conservative Cuban immigrants is an intoxicating mix of the polite and the profane. Yet she is never someone to be exploited.
Even though Consuela faces terrifying reversals, Cruz describes how her character pursues her own goals and exercises control in the relationship with Kepesh: "He's no predator, she's no victim. She knows why she wants to be with this man." As their connection grows, falls apart and comes back together again, both Kepesh and Consuela must deal with the immediacy of passion, the aching pain of loss, and the possibility of love.
Working from a screenplay crafted by Oscar®-nominee NICHOLAS MEYER (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Sommersby), Coixet involved her whole creative team in the adventure of translating an intimate tale of two people in close quarters into riveting visual storytelling and sensual film drama. Ben Kingsley sees the core of this collaborative effort as "the examination and definition of love between men and women." This is something the actor considers essential, "because the only thing that's holding this planet--this whole damn show--together is love."
Portraying an outwardly confident man who is secretly lonely and troubled, Kingsley brings amazing craft and precision to the role, as well as an unpredictable breath of life. Cruz describes working with him as "an amazing adventure--it's addictive, you know… like a beautiful roller coaster." Not only does Kingsley draw the audience deep into the character he plays, he empowers and liberates other actors. The process hinges on remaining open and bringing "an appetite for truth." Kingsley says: "I think the only common currency that actors can share of any value is vulnerability…We make things out of absolutely nothing but with vulnerability, it's amazing -- something of the human condition can start to flow." Screenwriter Nicholas Meyer talks about how his gift for sharing the moment extends to the film medium itself: "What really interests him is how you can team up with the camera to capture intimacy."
Director Coixet describes a specific instance of the sort of on-set emotional impact that Kingsley delivers: "I think he has the most amazing eyes I ever saw. I remember one day… a very simple scene. Ben was pouring some cognac and walking towards Penelope with the two glasses. I was behind the camera thinking: 'Oh, man those are really hungry eyes… like he was eating her with his eyes.'" Afterwards, Coixet asked Kingsley just what he was thinking in the shot. He told her: "I was looking to my death." What does an actor on his level bring to each role? For Kingsley, the answer is simple: "I have to surprise myself."
Acutely aware that his part in the carnal contest will not go on forever, Kepesh strives to keep an observer's distance. Encountering Consuela Castillo's extraordinary mix of sensuality and reserve opens him up in totally unexpected ways. Kepesh praises her elegant austerity, observing: "She knows that she's beautiful, but she's not yet sure what to do with her beauty." Totally captivated, he considers Consuela's body "a real work of art."
For Pénelope Cruz, taking on the part of Consuela fulfills a passion that she has nursed for five years, ever since producer Tom Rosenberg gave her the book to read. She finds Consuela "one of the most challenging characters I've had in my career, one of the scary ones." Completely embodying the sort of breathtaking female archetype that can provoke life-changing obsession, Cruz also brings to this role the ferocious honesty the actress has established in her work with Pedro Almodovar and especially in her impassioned performance in the critically-praised Italian picture Don't Move. The actress glories in Consuela's contradictions: "I love her because you cannot put her into a box. She's so many women all at once, but she's just herself, every time--honest, complex…wild and unpredictable."
Nicholas Meyer describes the essence of Consuela's character as "this extraordinary, heart-stopping beauty that pins Kepesh like a butterfly to a wall and this exceptional vulnerability that he little suspects because he's not really seeing her. He doesn't see her until it is too late." Penelope Cruz captures this volatile mix by channeling her own feelings and using her fear. It's a touchstone for her: "The day I'm eighty I'll feel the same thing--the sense of not being able to control everything. The camera sees everything, so much so that you realize you can't lie." She singles out director Coixet--a fellow Spaniard--for encouraging intimacy and risk in her work with performers, especially in the sex scenes: "Isabel shot them so beautifully. They really work. The magic that I felt when I read the book is there."
Concerned that his best friend is endangered by his fixation on Consuela and should "keep the sex part just for sex," Pulitzer-Prize winner poet George
O'Hearn (played by Dennis Hopper) warns Kepesh: "Beautiful women are invisible… No one can see the actual person… We're so dazzled by the outside, we never make it to the inside." In the film, this observation plays out over evocative scenes of Kepesh photographing Consuela at the beach, then developing the pictures in his darkroom--images of longing frozen in time.
(Kepesh courts Consuela with his impressive personal collection of classic photo images; the ritual action of taking photographs returns as an important element in the closing material of Elegy, which relies throughout on this sort of interplay between outer image and inner reality, between seeing and being-seen.) Much of the richest conversation that passes between the two lovers happens in their eyes. Coixet and her creative collaborators work to make sure the connection for the audience is also up close and personal.
From the infamous masturbation scene that made his Portnoy's Complaint a scandalous bestseller in 1969, Philip Roth has been both praised and attacked for feverish, often outrageous chronicles of how sexual desire fuels and makes turbulent the lives of American men. In creating Consuela, this provocative author goes beyond the beauty barrier to the actual person inside the perfect image. The way the character is visually portrayed in the film is critical to accomplishing this on screen.
Since Coixet operates her own camera (with longtime collaborator Jean-Claude Larrieu as Director of Photography), Ben Kingsley says: "Isabel is literally the eye of the film… She will not exaggerate or lie or film an untruth… I always know where she is and it's a pleasure for me to tell her my story." Coixet's empathetic, often humorous point-of-view extends past the leads and includes roles that in another sort of film would be allowed to be one-dimensional. "I love every character in this movie. The women know what they want, they are more honest than the men."
Consider Carolyn, played by PATRICIA CLARKSON
(Pieces of April, Good Night, and Good Luck). A high-powered businesswoman, she and Kepesh have shared a strong sexual connection for twenty years without entanglement. Carolyn (who, like Consuela, was once Kepesh's prize student and lover) is introduced in a rapturous bedroom performance that Coixet calls "a wonderful striptease," with sensual joy and expertise exuding from a woman in her forties. "Patricia is fearless," says the director, "with a veracity that is amazing to watch." Carolyn is a complex character; when she realizes Consuela's impact goes far past her own, she knows this love affair marks the end of a necessary friendship. Her pain is palpable; there is nothing brittle about this woman's liberation. Nicholas Meyer singles Clarkson out for her complete understanding of Carolyn's contradictions, "wildly successful in her professional life and conflicted and unfulfilled in her personal one," as well as her incandescent chemistry with Ben Kingsley.
DENNIS HOPPER (Blue Velvet, Apocalypse Now) brings the same professionalism (along with his personal charisma) to the role of George O'Hearn, the rascal great poet who warns his old friend and fellow womanizer Kepesh to "bifurcate" between the realm of sexual adventure and that of real life. Of the scenes of surprising intimacy he shares with Kingsley, Hopper jokes: "It's Blue Velvet meets Sexy Beast or Frank Booth meets Gandhi." He also acknowledges just how pleasurable it is working with a great actor and "a stand-up guy" like Kingsley.
George seems to be a famous man totally in control of his fate, even riding a bit on his reputation - a consummate hipster. Yet when he must deal with ultimate challenges, Hopper's character opens up his heart with desperate need and startling immediacy. Scenes between Kingsley and Hopper that might seem at first somewhat cynical and self-satisfied take on a whole new range of meaning. Jocular routines these two men have played with each other for decades end up being deadly serious, filled with resonance. George's fate is both a lesson and warning to Kepesh, as this bawdy, self-protected man is stripped bare by life and reconnects with his long-suffering wife, played by DEBORAH HARRY (My Life Without Me), famous as the lead singer of the iconic pop group "Blondie."
At the end, cocksure George O'Hearn runs contrary to his own cynical advice. Ben Kingsley roots his praise for Dennis Hopper's acting in his range of artistic expression: "Dennis is a great gift. He's more than an actor. It's his eye as a photographer…he can see the big picture and that's essential."
In the challenging role of Kenny Kepesh, a grown son who carries a deep resentment for his father's serial infidelities, Coixet was thrilled to cast PETER SARSGAARD (Shattered Glass, Kinsey) because she feels "you can see thousands of layers in his characters, even the simple ones." Repressed and judgmental, Kenny has defined himself in opposition to David Kepesh. Even though he has become an established physician, his old anger fuels him.
Still there is something in Kenny's heart that leads him to destroy his own marriage and then confess to his father. Sarsgaard sees a paradox in a son's competitive need for attention. Speaking from inside the character, he says: "I think the reason I go to tell him all these things is not to blame him, but to show him that I'm as interesting a person as he is...somewhere deep inside, I behave that way to get my father to take an interest. When I say 'You don't understand' what I'm trying to say is 'You do understand. Can't we be close now? I've done something just like you have.' '' Change is a constant in the world of ELEGY. By the time that Kenny has chosen to confront his father, the manipulative coldness that poisoned the father-son bond is already dissolving.
For David Kepesh, Consuela becomes an obsession; jealousy is his constant companion. Kepesh is sure that she will be stolen away by a younger man, because in the past, he would have been that young man. He can't live without Consuela yet fears the inevitable--his decline and her leave-taking. He makes probing inquiries about all her old boyfriends and fantasizes betrayal at every turn.
A master manipulator, he is trapped by his own imagination. Kepesh sees himself objectified as an old man with a young woman, and he doesn't like it, not at all. When Consuela invites him to a family party to celebrate her graduation, Kepesh contrives a car breakdown to stay away. Furious at the tactic, Consuela decides to break it off. Kepesh is devastated and immerses himself in work. Her power over him is particularly strong in her absence.
Then, after two years' loneliness, there is an unexpected phone call on New Year's Eve. Urgently needing to see him, Consuela comes to his apartment that very night. The news she brings turns the world upside down. For a man who had always counted on being able to pull away, Kepesh is now challenged to reverse polarities, to bind and to connect at all cost. Even if the risks inherent in lust cut deep, Kepesh discovers the risks of love cut far deeper.
Oscar-nominated screenwriter NICHOLAS MEYER brings considerable experience to the job of adapting Roth's short novel for producers Lakeshore Entertainment (TOM ROSENBERG, GARY LUCCHESI, ANDRE LAMAL). Meyer considers adaptation as a matter of "interlocking imponderables", including balancing "how well does a movie play if you've never read the book and how forgiving are you if you have." For Meyer, adaptation is an act of translation, requiring the screenwriter to travel though a mine field with tact and craft "to arrive at something where everybody says 'Yeah, this is what a movie of this book could be like.'" The central appeal of movies for Meyer is that the best tell a good story, which he defines in a simple, experiential way: "A good story to me is one that, after I've told it to you, you understand why I wanted to tell it."
Meyer also praises producers TOM ROSENBERG and GARY LUCCHESI for their love of challenging material: "They are both hopeless romantics in a way," extremely ambitious and knowledgeable, but willing to make a film for adults and "not just movies as wind-up toys."
In preparation for the filming of Elegy, Coixet and key members of her creative team, including Production Designer CLAUDE PARÉ and Costume Designer KATIA STANO, had to deal with a number of challenges to give the film a distinctive feel and visual coherence. For Paré (whose assignment immediately preceding Elegy was the $130M spectacle/comedy Night at the Museum), the key to evoking Manhattan on a limited budget was to make David Kepesh's apartment a "jewel box" museum of a man's life choices and experience. The art works the professor shows Consuela are reflected in the way the film is brilliantly shot by Director of Photography JEAN CLAUDE LARRIEU, especially in the color palette and in the use of mirrors and textured glass.
Paré recalls proudly the moment when Ben Kingsley first saw the set that represented the apartment in which David Kepesh has lived for decades. "Ben walked on set for the first time after a week of rehearsals in a hotel room. He had soup in a bag and a little spoon. He came in through the main entrance, through the living room and the dining room and into the kitchen corner, sat down and started eating his soup." For Kingsley, the place was exactly what he had imagined it would be. "That he was comfortable and at ease in that space was a big reward for me," says Paré.
Katia Stano worked with Isabel Coixet on My Life Without Me and was thrilled to be reunited with the director. She wanted the clothes for each actor to help define the inner life of their character. She recalls detailed conversations with Kingsley about how opening or fastening a single jacket button could add to the authenticity of a dramatic moment, revealing how an experienced seducer would calibrate his appearance for effect.
For Consuela's wardrobe, Stano worked with Penelope Cruz to emphasize "classic clean lines, very elegant," reflecting her immigrant parents' pride in having success in a newfound land. Every detail, down to the choice of lingerie for Patricia Clarkson's Carolyn ("functional… but very high end"), is focused on making the moment come alive and giving the characters' history and weight and specificity
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
ISABEL COIXET (Director)
Spain's Isabel Coixet started making films when she received an 8mm camera for her first communion. After studying 18th- and 19th-century history at the University of Barcelona, she made a living in advertising and copywriting. This led to making award-winning commercials and eventually to founding her own production company, Miss Wasabi Films. In 1988, Coixet made her debut as a writer/director with Demasiado Viejo Para Morir Joven (Too Old To Die Young), earning her a Goya nomination for Best New Director.
Her first English-language film came in 1996, with Cosas Que Nunca Te Dije (Things I Never Told You). Joining up with a French production company, she returned to a Spanish-language script for her 1998 historical adventure, A Los Que Aman (Those Who Love). Coixet's international breakthrough came in 2003 with the intimate drama My Life Without Me, based on a short story by Nanci Kincaid. In 2005, Coixet joined 18 other prominent international filmmakers, including Gus Van Sant, Walter Salles and Joel and Ethan Cohen in the innovative collective work Paris Je T'aime, with each filmmaker exploring one district of the city of Paris. Coixet is also a documentary filmmaker of note on such thought-provoking works as Invisibles, a Panorama selection at the 2007 Berlin Film Festival about Doctors Without Borders and Viaje al corazón de la tortura, filmed in Sarajevo during the Balkan war and winning an award at the Human Rights Film Festival in October 2003. She was a jury member at the 62nd Venice International Film Festival.
NICHOLAS MEYER (Screenwriter)
Nicholas Meyer earned an Academy Award nomination for scripting the adaptation of his own best-selling Sherlock Holmes novel, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. In addition to two more Holmes novels, he wrote and directed the classic time-travel thriller, Time After Time, starring Malcolm McDowell as H.G. Wells. He directed The Day After, the television movie that attracted the biggest single audience for a film in broadcast history. Meyer wrote the post-civil war drama, Sommersby, He wrote and/or directed Star Treks II (The Wrath of Khan), IV (The Voyage Home) and VI (The Undiscovered Country). Other feature credits include Company Business and The Informant, for which he received the PEN Award for best teleplay (1999). He was nominated for an Emmy for his teleplay, The Night That Panicked America and received another Emmy nomination as executive producer of the mini-series, The Odyssey. In addition to his screenplay for Elegy, He also wrote The Rise Of Theodore Roosevelt for Martin Scorsese, based on Edmund Morris' Pulitzer Prize-winning biography and also American Insurrection from Bill Doyle's riveting minute-by-minute account of James Meredith's attempt to register as the first black man to attend the University of Mississippi.
PHILIP ROTH (Author)
Born in Newark, New Jersey, Philip Roth attended Bucknell University and the University of Chicago. He taught English at the University of Chicago and Creative Writing at Iowa and Princeton, and for many years he taught Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. His first book, Goodbye, Columbus in 1959, won the National Book Award. His third novel, Portnoy's Complaint, was a notorious success in 1969, becoming The New York Times bestseller for the year, and making Roth into a celebrity, a theme he would deal with in later novels such as Zuckerman Unbound and Operation Shylock, as well as his short novel The Dying Animal-- upon which the film Elegy is based. Philip Roth's work has continued to grow and develop over the span of his career. As fellow novelist Martin Amis has said: "His fiction, and his talent, are defying time." In the 1990s Philip Roth won America's four major literary awards in succession: the National Book Critics Award for Patrimony, the PEN/ Faulkner Award for Operation Shylock, The National Book Award for Sabbath's Theater and The Pulitzer Prize for American Pastoral in 1997. In the same year, he received the National Medal of Arts at the White House. In 2001, he received the highest award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Gold Medal in fiction, given every six years "for the entire work of the recipient."
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