Eccentrics in Love

The Luzhin Defence

The festival closes as it began with an adaptation of an early twentieth-century novel by Vladimir Nabokov, The Luzhin Defence, a disappointing finale to what has been a very strong program overall. The film follows an obsessed Russian chess master, Alexander Luzhin (John Turturro), who in the late 1920s arrives at Lake Como in northern Italy to play for the world championship. There he encounters another Russian traveler, lively and lovely Natalia (Emily Watson), who has come with her watchful mother Vera (Geraldine James) to find a husband among the gentry gathered there. While her mother sets her sights on a dashing nobleman, Natalia is strangely entranced by the tattered, shambling Luzhin, and an unlikely romance blooms. But the pressures of the chess tournament weigh heavily on Luzhin as do the ghosts of his childhood, which haunt his idle thoughts. Even as he finds true love with Natalia, Luzhin is hurtling towards catastrophe.

This story line certainly offers promise for director Marleen Gorris, who has been effective with character driven films in the past (Antonia's Line, Mrs. Dalloway). But this plot is not so much character driven as it is character occupied. Luzhin himself certainly doesn't move the action. He's a hapless Chaplin-esque personality, so distracted by his chess thoughts he doesn't notice where he is or with whom until he looks up one day and beholds Natalia. Natalia herself tries to help her new beau, but while she can contest with and overcome the objections of her horrified parents, she can't really do much to help or restore Luzhin. The story line meanders along, pushed and pulled by outside characters, notably Luzhin's villainous former mentor, who finagles an alliance with Luzhin's chief opponent in the chess tournament.

The net result here is that The Luzhin Defence is more a character study than a dynamic drama, a slow paced, unengaging narrative that willfully sabotages itself by repeated flashbacks to Luzhin's childhood. To be fair, these dark, nightmarish episodes, shot in Budapest to stand in for czarist Russia, add some drama and pathos. The boy Luzhin, longing for affection and comfort from his cold, contentious parents, is caught in a vicious emotional crossfire as his father carries on an illicit romance with his sister-in-law while his wife rages inwardly. But though these flashbacks are vivid, they aren't very useful to the tale at hand. We never really learn why the boy Luzhin's innate brilliance becomes apparent only when he learns chess, or why the adult Luzhin is as near madness as he seems. But in the end, despite the attention Gorris pays to it, none of Luzhin's past history really matters.

John Turturro plays a chess master who meets his mate in Emily Watson
John Turturro plays a chess master who meets his mate in Emily Watson

What does matter is Natalia and her struggle to marry the man of her choice. Unfortunately this conflict, the only engaging one in the story, is sidelined as a subplot while the movie focuses largely on Luzhin and his inner demons. But as should have seemed obvious to Gorris and her cinematographer Bernard Lutic, inner demons are famously hard to photograph and a story revolving around a chess match does not augur exciting, visual storytelling.

Their solution is only partially successful. Midway through the film, Luzhin's former chess mentor Valentino (played with one-note menace by Stuart Wilson) reappears at the championship match, the embodiment of Luzhin's tormented past. The introduction of this antagonist injects some tension and conflict, however belated. At the sight of Valentino, Luzhin flashes back to the time the Svengali-like Valentino took him away as a chess protégé. He again becomes a menacing father figure, a spook from the past that Natalia must battle to save Luzhin's sanity.

The scheming Valentino tries to defeat Luzhin by reminding him of his past to distract him. Even on the day of Luzhin's marriage to Natalia, Valentino contrives to kidnap Luzhin, abandoning him on a desolate hillside in hopes of distracting him further. Luzhin collapses in a nervous breakdown only to be found by a passing squad of black-shirted fascists, giving Gorris the curious distinction of being perhaps the only filmmaker since Leni Riefenstahl to portray fascists as good guys, however briefly.

Turturro, who has made a career out of portraying wound-up oddballs, does what he can with his passive role, giving Luzhin some charm and empathy amid a near-psychotic personality. With his tattered dusty coat, dirty fingernails, distant gaze, offset lower jaw and ducklike walk, Turturro has Luzhin's look and moves down cold. But the overall effect feels mannered, studied, without much emotional range: Luzhin is so distracted, he's almost not in the story at all. Most of his appeal comes from one endlessly repeated joke: He's so out of it, he behaves out of context. He proposes to Natalia before knowing her name; maintains a conversation with her on a crowded street, unaware he has left her blocks behind; explains a complex chess move to her perplexed father (nicely portrayed by Peter Blythe), blissfully unaware that the older man has no idea what he's on about.

Watson, so compelling in Breaking the Waves, delivers another in a string of solid performances, but she seems miscast as Natalia. The story appears to call for a very young woman, one whose odd choice of Luzhin is the first self-assertion she has ever made. But Watson's mature look and forthright manner seem at odds with her character, her relationship with her parents, and even some of her behavior -- at times she comes across as a middle-age spinster behaving like a teenager. And matched up with James as her mother, the pair look more like sisters than daughter and mother.

Gorris herself takes a measured, respectful stance towards this project. Gorris's shift here, to directing material from other writers, is a telling one. There's not much personal statement in evidence, merely craft. Gorris's camera, mostly confined to locked-down conventional shots and slow, unobtrusive dolly movements, lacks much energy or statement. The soft warm hues of Italy are balanced by the cool dark Russian memory scenes. Jany Temime's costumes are lovely. All's well wrought and little's well thought, remarkably similar in effect to the festival opener, The Golden Bowl, another literary adaptation without much conviction. In a recent statement Gorris spoke tellingly, if inadvertently, about her work: "I both wrote and directed my first four films and in those scripts I said all that I needed to say -- for the moment, that is."

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