Intellectuals in lust. A species Philip Roth knows all too well. The delicious conflict of a thinker poleaxed by his feelings inflames Isabel Coixet's smoldering Elegy, based on Roth's novella The Dying Animal.
The film stars Ben Kingsley as David Kepesh, an academic and public intellectual who cannot think and lust at the same time.
David has three gears. He thinks about taking carnal action. He acts. Then he huddles with his best chum to share the post-game color commentary. He doesn't believe in romantic love, having years ago discarded a wife for a series of sexual encounters.
But what happens when a practiced seducer who plays the field becomes smitten with one woman, a graduate student 30 years his junior?
As she is Consuela Castillo and played by Penelope Cruz, with melancholy-laced vivacity, you know the answer to the question. Beholding Consuela, Kepesh, agnostic about love but devout about sex, has his beliefs shaken to their bedrock. He doesn't listen to his poet pal, George (puckish Dennis Hopper), who reminds him not to be so dazzled by the external package to forget that beauties possess internal beauty too.
Spanish filmmaker Coixet harnesses the stop-start-stop staccato of Kepesh's biorhythms and turns it into a film that surges and overflows with passion and regret. Her extreme close-ups of Kingsley's predatory, aquiline features and Cruz's elusive, Picassoesque beauty plumb their characters' emotions.
In a role that couldn't be further from his quietly inspirational Gandhi or his quietly inspirational Schindler Jew Itzhak Stern, Kingsley is superb as Kepesh - and intimidating as a silverback beating his chest. As the professor and NPR celeb accustomed to dominating every lecture, conversation and interview, Kepesh fears losing control. Losing control is pretty much the definition of love, which, of course, Kepesh thinks he doesn't believe in.
If Coixet's film is substantially more restrained than its explicit source material (Nicholas Meyer, himself a fine novelist and director of the second and best Star Trek film, adapted), it is no less provocative as a poetic meditation on love, sex and death.
In theme, Elegy is a rueful companion to Woody Allen's cheerier Vicky Cristina Barcelona and boasts two of that film's exceptional actresses, Cruz and Patricia Clarkson, who here play the roles of fiery young romantic and cool middle-aged pragmatist.
Cruz, whose bewitching beauty and nuanced moods cannot be overpraised, and Clarkson, the ice-swathed volcano, elevate Kingsley's game. Also memorable in smaller roles are Peter Sarsgaard as Kepesh's bitter son and Deborah Harry (also known as Blondie) as George's resigned wife.
What burns brighter, the quick paper fire of sexual passion or the slow coal fire of love? Who is the realist, the pragmatist who plots sexual moves as though they were chess gambits or the romantic who succumbs to passion? The questions are unanswerable, but in Coixet's deft hands they are also unforgettable.
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog, Flickgrrl, at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl/