“I think it’s an illness,” director Isabel Coixet says of moviemaking. “It’s a virus you get somehow when you’re a kid and it’s always with you… There is a very specific word for that, a very scientific word called algolagnia. It’s not masochism—it’s exactly the mixture between pleasure and pain. That’s why I say it’s a virus, because there’s no way you can get rid of it—no matter what.”

Coixet, 48, caught the bug early. “I began to go to the cinematheque when I was really young,” she remembers of her upbringing in Barcelona. “It was my refuge. I was happy there.” Watching films by classic auteurs was the genesis of Coixet’s own passion for film: “I remember watching Bergman films, especially The Seventh Seal. I saw that when I was 12 and I didn’t understand a word. But I remember that film really impressed me, because I realized movies can be something else.”

It wasn’t until Coixet landed a job as a copywriter at an ad agency that her career as a moviemaker began in earnest, when she used film stolen from the agency’s production company to make her first short film, Mira y verás, in 1984. Coixet has spent the last 24 years making small, powerful films full of complex characters, most notably My Life Without Me (2003) and The Secret Life of Words (2005), the latter of which won four Goya Awards.

With Elegy, Coixet takes on the formidable task of reinterpreting Philip Roth’s novel, The Dying Animal, for the screen.

It would be difficult to find a more surprising pairing than these two artists. Roth is known for his sprawling meditations on the male psyche, while Coixet is recognized for films that focus on the struggles of complex female protagonists. But with Elegy, Coixet has used this incongruity to her advantage. “It’s a story by one of the most misogynistic writers of his generation [as] seen by a Spanish woman,” she says, laughing, “I really admire Philip Roth and I really respect what he does, but I have my own point of view about his plot and his characters and it’s there, it’s in the film.”

Elegy charts the turbulent relationship between David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley), an aging, hedonistic professor, and his student, Consuela (Penélope Cruz). Even in his mid-sixties, Kepesh is assured of his ability to attract women, but is unnerved by his unexpected attachment to his young pupil.
The story is not a simple May-December romance however, and Coixet was determined to convey the depth of her characters and their attraction to one another. “I really understand David Kepesh,” she explains, “I think I understand his reasons—I understand why he acts like he acts—and I really know these kinds of men. I know when you read the story of The Dying Animal, it’s an old professor and a young, Cuban student, you think, ‘Oh, it’s one of those.’ But I think at the end, these two characters, they are the same age.”

One of Coixet’s most important goals in filming Elegy was to flesh out the character of Consuela: “When I read the book, I remember thinking, this woman, who’s studying at Columbia, she’s a little too naïve,” she recalls. As played by Cruz, Consuela is both the idealized beauty of Roth’s novel and the more complicated, concrete character imagined by Coixet. “I guess as a writer, he had a much more perfect idea of Consuela than me. But then when you’re dealing with an actress, you have to show the sweat in her eyebrows and you have to show her naked. There is no ideal, she is just the reality of the flesh.”

Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson in Elegy

In a film focused primarily on man’s obsession with female beauty, Coixet says it was essential to show what lies beneath the surface of the women in the story. Cruz may be much closer to the physical ideal than most, but Coixet says that she, and the rest of the cast (which includes Patricia Clarkson, Dennis Hopper and Peter Sarsgaard) portrayed characters that go far beyond the surface: “I remember every time the character played by Dennis Hopper would say something about a beautiful woman, I was laughing and I would say, ‘What about ugly women? What are we?’ But you know what? Men talk like that… They can talk about women as virgins or whores. There is nothing in between. That is why the character played by Patricia Clarkson [Kepesh’s former student and longtime lover] is so important, because Patricia’s a real woman. And her character is all those women you see drinking alone in bars.”

In order to develop this richness of character in her films, Coixet takes a hands-on approach, doing her own camerawork in collaboration with cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu. “For me it’s the best way to work with actors,” she explains. “I think I’m really interested in intimacy, and for me the best way to show intimacy is to be there with them… When you have to tell a camera operator what you want, you waste so much energy.”

Coixet even plays a significant role in the scoring of her films (she served as music supervisor for Elegy—a job she says she would consider as a side career), citing the soundtrack as an essential part of her moviemaking process.

When asked how she has evolved as a moviemaker over the course of her quarter-century in the business, the Spanish auteur pauses. “I think I’m more humble now… I think I’m more flexible,” she says. “I’m not looking for perfection. I’m just looking for the sacred moments you find even in the most stupid film. And I think now I understand more about human beings—just a little more, not a lot. The only thing that matters when you’re approaching a film is who you are, and who you are in relation [to] the characters and the plot. So when you know more or less who you are, the rest is easy.”