directed by Isabel Coixet
written by Nicholas Meyer
based on the novel by Philip Roth
starring Dennis Hopper, Penelope Cruz, Ben Kingsley, Patricia Clarkson, Peter Sarsgaard, Deborah Harry
Based on Philip Roth’s novel “The Dying Animal”, this film explores both the allure and cruelty of beauty. A man with pretensions regarding Self-determination has his emotional life torn asunder by a much younger woman.
David Kepesh (Kingsley) figures he knows himself fairly well. He’s a successful critic and professor who possesses a certain magnetism that many young strumpets are hot for in their in their own special way. He’s got a rule where he won’t go after one of them until after they receive their report card. To this end he pursues Consuela Castillo (Cruz) at a party he throws for his students. He wows her with his knowledge about Goya and quickly thereafter he’s got her into bed. He’s also sleeping with a woman named Carolyn (Clarkson) with whom he shares a unadorned purely sexual tryst every three weeks. It’s simply, to the point, and entirely without any emotional connection. But too his horror he finds himself drawn into the life and world of Consuela. It torments him to be so happy so he goes about his way to sabotage it.
The film focuses mostly on the relationship between David and his two women. In many ways it is more of a film about the myriad levels of female beauty. There is a line from David’s friend George (Hopper) who says that “beautiful women are invisible. “We are so busy [looking] at what’s on the outside that we never get inside.” David seems to have a problem getting past the superficial level of mere beauty. He says he worships Consuela’s breasts and that he can’t stop looking at her face. Subsequently we don’t get much of a clue what kind of art truly moves Consuela or what she thinks about anything at all. She’s a cipher because this is how David sees her. We aren’t given much of an opportunity to get to know her and it proves to be frustrating having to live so much inside David’s head.
David’s seeming inability to allow himself to fully connect with Consuela’s entire being comes through when he fails to show up at the graduation party her parents are holding for her. He lies to her by telling her his car has broken down on the George Washington Bridge. She breaks off the relationship at that point by not calling him. David has a difficult time adjusting to the loss of Consuela and just as he’s starting slowly to adjust to her absence a tragedy befalls him throwing him headlong into a quagmire that he never quite lifts himself out of by film’s end. Yet another bit of terrible news accosts him leaving him reeling from the shock and entirely unsure of what he can do to offer his assistance.
The relationship between David and Carolyn is a basic, easy, unromantic sexual exercise with no strings attached. Carolyn does seem to be a bit territorial and doesn’t exactly want David to be sleeping around which seems odd considering the nature of their arrangement. They don’t really speak about anything, they don’t do much of anything together, and they merely lay about having sex until she leaves and that’s that. Clearly David wants something beyond it and this triggers his interest in Consuela. Consuela is presented at something of a siren who steals men’s souls with her eyes and posture. She dresses early on like a paralegal or a naughty school girl. As David mentions she has a “formal austerity” about her and this is certainly so. Penelope Cruz’s body is cherished by the camera in this film. Her form is lovingly photographed as are her eyes and lips and hair. Indeed, every aspect of her body becomes a fetish item to sear the imaginations of the audience members who most likely sit transfixed over the exquisite nature of the apprehension. Cruz projects both innocence and worldliness in the many shots that focus exclusively on her. She knows things clearly that David is not able to extract from her. She’s got more of a sense of herself than he will admit; she is not merely a girl he is able to sleep with because she is awed by his talent and his position in academia. There is so much more to her fascination with him and he is too bumbling and stubborn to fully appreciate it although they do stay together for about a year which tells more about his ability to perpetually fawn over her than any thing else.
The relationship between David and George is essential to the overall integrity of the film. George is a Pulitzer Prize winning poet who grounds David and keeps him focused. He understands that his friend has been suckered by Consuela’s physical body and is able to offer him advice on how to deal with the tenacity of his connection to her. He listens to David in a way that nobody else will. He knows his faults and everything that he tries to hide from the women in his life. He cannot be fooled and David greatly appreciates this quality about him and their friendship flourishes because it is built upon such simple premises.
Once Consuela becomes frustrated enough the relationship ends. David cannot quite bring himself to be seen as “the boyfriend” to her parents. Their judgement of the obvious age difference between them seems to hold him back from fully giving of himself to her. It’s part of his inability to truly see into her because he, perhaps unconsciously, wants to remain outside merely observing her without getting caught up with being an actual part of her life on the inside. David begins the film well-regulated, organized, and structured. He’s put his life into an easily accessible order and there is nothing out of place. Then he allows himself to give into his basic lust for the girl and everything takes on a stranger, more complicating hue. She literally changes his chemistry and forces him to see his world more openly and he initially reacts by following her to a club where she is dancing with another man presumed to be her brother. The sight of this man sends shockwaves through David and his jealousy is brought to the fore.
David is a man who knows quite a lot about literature, music and art. He has cultivated a fairly well rounded appreciation of the finer aspects of the artistic process and it has succored him over the course of his life. He realizes and teaches that beauty relies on the psychological state of the observer. Ironically he is not as able to see this necessity in himself until it floods over him and he is left confused, strait jacketed and in a state of what he perceives to be acute loss. Consuela represents to him a connection to the beauty he feels so desperate to fully embrace but that beauty proves to be entirely elusive. He is left in a blind attempt to possess her because that is the manner in which he has always approached the beautiful things he has always coveted. David says that Consuela is a work of art and this resonates when later in the film a young woman explains that art cannot be possessed because it is eternal. David has struggled to let go of art his entire life and Consuela is just another object that he cannot explicitly abandon to itself.
This film plays like an exquisitely rendered tone poem to the niceties and horrors inherent in what is perceived to be beautiful. Consuela is presented as a form of physical beauty that beguiles and terrifies. David can only penetrate her through the act of making love but he fails to fully break through into the realm where her thoughts and passions lie. He certainly makes inroads and learns enough to satisfy him by the end of the relationship but his reach is limited by his perceptions. He is awed and transfixed and does realize his limitations have held him back from fully allowing himself to become intertwined with the essence of Consuela.
The flesh is projected with a sacredness and a thing to be valued explicitly for itself without the barrier of harsh observation denigrating it into ruin. All the images of Consuela’s body prove to enhance the overall urgency with which the film explores the nature of the physical body as an object simply to be observed. Yet it is impossible not to “read” a body without tarnishing it with our own delusions and preconceptions. This film seems to be attempting to get at questions of what beauty is without these falsifiers. David “sees” Consuela’s body as something he can appreciate on a purely aesthetic level. She does indeed become a work of art to him because he has taught himself how to appreciate the contours and angles of her body. For him she is beautiful because he has aligned his view of her with all of the structural fantasies and nightmares through which he confronts objects that attract him. Perhaps she is not beautiful at all in herself but rather her entire form coalesces with everything terrible and enticing that David has ever encountered over the course of his life.
The performances in this film all work exceedingly well within the context of the film. Ben Kingsley captures the direct, ordered persona of his character. David possesses a forthrightness and an immediacy that is a product of his rationalism. Kingsley plays his character poetically and with a tremendous amount of charm. David seems to be eternally looking for something significant out in a drift and is always frustrated by his inability to locate it. He is a student of beauty as it is found in women and art but he has grave difficulties seeing straight into the heart of Consuela where secrets and dangerous truths lie. Penelope Cruz has a firelight in her eyes throughout this film. Part of the reason we never learn anything about Consuela is because Cruz is forever diverting our attention as her beguiling eyes look askance. Cruz captures her character’s intense introspection without giving anything significant away. Patricia Clarkson gives her character Carolyn an aching quality in this film that is tinged with both personal satisfaction and a bit of despair. Clarkson expertly provides us with a terribly complicated woman who is just begging to be seen. Dennis Hopper’s character has a jubilant disregard for everything that does not effectively fit into his scheme. He’s direct without being overly aggressive. Hopper gives the audience a forceful presence who is nevertheless nuanced and critically observant. Peter Sarsgaard has a brief role in this film but in the short time he is on screen, he captures both his character’s confusions and his capacities. Kevin, David’s son, is a self-possessed man who is struggling with accepting the fact that his father ran out on him when he was a boy. The fractured nature of their relationship is handled with great observational skill and grace.
Overall, this film explores the many aspects of beauty and how difficult it is to fully accept our limitations in appreciating it for what it truly is. We often see it through the blinders of our own paltry experiences and expectations without daring to look any further. David is a talented man who finds himself in a fit after finally having the opportunity to take Consuela to bed. She proves to be much more than he dared expect and this results in something of a chaos for him that is painful and exacting. Ultimately this film says quite a lot about how beauty of form, style, etc. remains elusive until we are willing and able to effectively apprehend it. This is not a film strictly about a young girl awakening an older man into himself. It’s much more complex than that as David is confronted with all the horrible aspects of beauty that affect the impact it has on him. They terrify him mostly because they are so unexpected and he is used to merely skimming off of the surface. Consuela forces him into a position where he is no longer in control. He finds himself unsure of his special place in the world, unable to firmly grasp hold of anything, forever twisting and tormented by the potentialities that lie withing the body and mind of this most dangerous creature with claws and fangs.