The Luzhin Defense

THE LUZHIN DEFENSE. 2001

Director: Marleen Gorris

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl



I'm not a chess player & have no special liking for the theme, yet this story was rivetting. I'm equally tepid about period love stories, but this one was wonderfully strange, so I deeply wanted things however preposterously to work out well for this couple.

The Luzhin Defense is based on the story by Vladamir Nabokov, from the director of Antonia's Line & Mrs. Dalloway. Marleen Gorris is often slammed as a "chick flick" director, & the sexism of the categorical dismissal aside, the film's literary origins preserves sufficient of Nabokov's perversity & intellectuality to be a film intelligent film about the oddness of the human condition.

On one level it's just Masterpiece Theater or Merchant-Ivory, but within its category it stands at the pinnacle of acting & intrigue & stunning cinemography, making it just about as good a film as anyone can hope for.

John Turturro despite affecting a goofy European accent manages somehow to turn in one of the best performances of his already impressive career. He plays Alexandre Luzhin, a bit of a genius, a bit of a nutjob, so focused on the game of chess that he barely knows how to eat or change his clothes, being brilliant at one thing only, & competent at nothing else. He has lived in this chess world since he was a child prodigy, & knows nothing about surviving in the world at large.

But then he is afflicted by "love at first sight." The instant he sees Emily Watson he is smitten, which is understandable enough, but a little less instantly comprehensible that the sleek upperclass beauty so extravagantly returns the interest to such a degree that she takes seriously a proposal of marriage before they even know each others' names.

Ever since childhood she has been the sort to mope after eccentrics or save abandoned flea-bitten dogs from doom. In the dissheveled chainsmoking absent-minded chessmaster, she finds the eccentric & the flea-bitten dog rolled into one, to her mother's horror.

As her parents conspire against this unexpected miss-match, Luzhin is fallling prey to the machinations of his childhood chess coach, who had abandoned Luzhin as a hopeless cause & all these years later still frets that the player he threw to the wayside will become the number one chessmaster in the world. Due to Luzhin's emotional instability, it is very easy to twink with his mental state with the intent of throwing him off his game.

So there's a good story to go with this peculiar romance, as behind-the-scenes machinations are undertaken to keep our neurotic hero from winning the world chess championship. As he deteriorates helplessly under the psychologically cruel assaults of foes he scarsely realizes he has, the viewer waits for him to either grow a spine or for his beloved to rush in & save him.

The manner by which she comes to his rescue is no syrupy finale, but it is rescue nonetheless, as bittersweet as any film I've ever seen.

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl



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