ELEGY ssss Directed by Isabel Coixet adapted by Nicholas Meyer from a novella by Philip Roth

VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA sss Written and directed by Woody Allen

Isabel Coixet’s drama Elegy and Woody Allen’s romantic comedy Vicky Cristina Barcelona are both about Americans becoming entangled with sophisticated foreigners. Coincidentally, Penelope Cruz and Patricia Clarkson appear in both movies, and art and photography figure significantly. But there are other, more interesting similarities: both movies are reminiscent of the European art films whose sexual frankness galvanized the American cinema in the 1960s and ’70s. Coixet, a Spaniard, and Allen, who’s taken to working abroad, show a worldly and unusually complex sensibility about sex: Marriage is limiting, and passion is transitory but essential. Love has lasting consequences, and they sting.

Elegy, adapted from Philip Roth’s novella The Dying Animal, gives Ben Kingsley one of the best roles of his career: David Kepesh, a Columbia University professor and cultural commentator who, appearing on Charlie Rose’s late-night talk show in the opening scene, excoriates the Puritans for crippling American mores and expresses regret that he ever wed. Having left his wife and child decades earlier to embrace the sexual revolution and countless women, he now endures the bitterness of his self-righteous son (a funny Peter Sarsgaard), a married doctor embroiled in an adulterous affair. Dennis Hopper steals scenes as Kepesh’s comrade-in-arms in the gender wars, and Clarkson is right on the money as Kepesh’s longtime sex partner, whose two failed marriages make her more of a soul mate than the professor realizes.

Kepesh finds his orderly life upended when he enters into a highly eroticized relationship with Cuban beauty Consuela Castillo (Cruz), a former student more than 30 years his junior. He loves Consuela’s body, compares her to a Goya masterpiece, and photographs her during an idyll on the beach. But he’s taken aback by the depth of his passion: he’s fearful of losing her to a younger man and appalled by his own possessiveness. Cinematographer Jean-Claude Larrieu heightens the emotional intensity by shooting the lovers in close-up with a handheld camera, and Cruz and Kingsley’s faces glow in the darkness of Kepesh’s apartment.

In her sexuality Consuela is “a throwback to a completely different time,” as Kepesh phrases it. Her generosity in the bedroom arises from thoughtfulness, confidence, and warmth. The tactful way she deflects his growing jealousy leads to a key scene in the deft and nuanced screenplay by Nicholas Meyer (who’s toned down the savagery of Roth’s book): more than a year and a half into their affair, she asks Kepesh what he wants from her, how he sees their future. With brutal honesty he replies: “A future with you scares me.”

Romantic dysfunction is a familiar subject for Allen, but in Match Point (2005), with its rain-soaked lovemaking between Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Scarlett Johansson, he introduced a more graphic eroticism. There isn’t much skin in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but the movie celebrates the physical contact that’s fundamental to love. Rebecca Hall stars as Vicky, a graduate student engaged to be married, and Johansson is her bohemian friend, Cristina; spending the summer in Spain, both women fall for Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a hunky painter divorced from the hot-tempered Maria Elena (Cruz), who once knifed him. From the first shot of Bardem lounging against a pillar, you know he’s trouble, and immediately after meeting him in a Barcelona restaurant, the two American women are accompanying him to Oviedo, his picturesque hometown in Catalonia, for a weekend of sightseeing, food, wine, and whatever else may arise.

At the outset, Allen’s omniscient narrator (Christopher Evan Welch, heard only in voice-over) establishes that Vicky hates surprises, that she values her fiance, Doug (Chris Messina of Ira & Abby), for his stability. She’s the opposite of her more adventurous pal Cristina, who hopes for a tryst with Juan and accepts the fact that romance can end in pain and disappointment. But comedy depends on reversals, and after Cristina comes down with food poisoning, Vicky’s the one who succumbs to the painter’s charms. Later Juan resumes his liaison with Cristina, who moves in with him, and another reversal follows when his ex-wife resurfaces and the three of them successfully cohabit as artists and lovers.

Neither film ends happily—in each, sexuality forces a character to confront mortality—but both are refreshing for their lack of denial and sanctimony. Most movies treat sex as either a sanitized ritual or a contact sport, but these movies make a subtle point—that an open, unconventional approach toward sex doesn’t necessarily make it any simpler. Quite the opposite: openness challenges us to confront and reevaluate ourselves, which is what all the arts—literature, painting, photography, cinema—should strive to do.v

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