The Luzhin Defence



dir. Marleen Gorris
scr. Peter Berry (based on the novel by Vladimir Nabokov)
cin. Bernard Lutic
stars John Turturro, Emily Watson
108 minutes

Must all chess films be so utterly ludicrous? The last one I paid money to see at the cinema was the Knight Moves back in 1993, which at least had the advantage of taking a refreshingly lunk-headed approach to an intellectual pursuit, so that its essential preposterousness ended up adding to rather than detracting from its entertainment value. And surely few viewers expected much more from a picture directed by Carl Schenkel and starring Christopher Lambert as the grandmaster.

The Luzhin Defence is just as absurd, but it’s a much more objectionable and offensive piece of work, all the more so because of its promising pedigree – Gorris won 1995’s Foreign-Language Oscar for Antonia’s Line; Watson deserved the trophy the following year for Breaking The Waves; Turturro has done plenty of interesting work. Turturro fares OK and Watson is the main reason for not walking out, but the efforts of both are fatally sabotaged by Gorris’s relentlessly clunking direction – the technique she displays would have been considered laughably old hat back in 1929, which is when Luzhin takes place.

The source material is promising – Nabokov’s early novel tells the story of an unlikely romance between eccentric chess genius Luzhin (Turturro) and headstrong heiress Natalia (Watson) during the world championships at an Italian lakeside resort. Their affair is complicated by Luzhin’s unstable mental state, the machinations of his former tutor, Valentinov (Stuart Wilson), and the objections of Natalia’s stodgily respectable Russian emigr parents (Geraldine James and Peter Blythe). The film frequently flashes back to Luzhin’s opulent but unhappy childhood in Russia, where he escaped the horrors of his parents’ disintegrating marriage by fleeing into the ordered world of the chess board.

From the very start it’s apparent that Gorris’s approach is to take the conventional and obvious route wherever possible – every shot, every cut, every scene, are all straight from the standard textbook of ‘respectable’ literary adaptation. Everything about the film handled in a predictable, careful, unoriginal manner, with the closest attention paid to all the wrong details: costumes, set decoration, intrusively ‘tasteful’ music. This would be bad enough in any film, but here it’s offensive – the directorial approach goes totally against the sentiments the script so forcefully expounds. Natalia makes it clear that she is attracted to Luzhin because of his individuality and eccentricity, and not in spite of in spite of those qualities.

After Luzhin has a mental breakdown, his doctors tell Natalia that he must give up chess or die. Watson is convincing and moving when she protests “A normal life – is that what I have to reduce him to?”, but Gorris seems determined to reduce Luzhin’s story to as normal a level as possible. It’s as if Natalia’s mother, the most narrow-minded and stuffy person in the film, had got behind the camera – when we should see things at least from the viewpoint of Natalia, who is so touchingly open to new ideas.

Everything is just so crashingly heavy-handed, almost to the point of parody. Valentinov, who should be an enigmatic nemesis figure, is a villain straight out of Rusky pantomime, all dark eyes and dark beard, his malice so carelessly sketched in as to be virtually motiveless. His plotting ensures Luzhin’s downfall, but the script comes across as a co-conspirator, with Luzhin’s degree of instability handily fluctuating according to the requirements of the melodrama’s contrivances. Thanks to Watson, the final scenes – the abortive wedding between Natalia and Luzhin – do have a poignant edge, which makes it all the more frustrating to find both her and us betrayed by the absurd implausibilities (the chronically inept groom is left to make his way to the church unaccompanied) which are crucial in Luzhin’s eventual demise. You keep asking yourself whether the book can be at all like this – I haven’t read it myself, but I do know that the film’s coda, in which Natalia completes Luzhin’s final match in the championship, is an entirely new addition, and one which makes very little sense.

The coda is bad, but it’s by no means the worst sequence of the film. There’s a pivotal game in which Luzhin looks across the board and sees his opponent Turati (Fabio Sartor) change into his father, his mother, and his aunt, then he looks down at the chessboard and Gorris makes the pieces move around in an inept display of stop-motion photography. Then there are those flashbacks, which are, like the rest of the film, handled in the most galumphing manner imaginable – the only thing missing is that the frame don’t start to wobble as the present woozes into the past – and which are notable for the extended amount of screen time they offer to young Alexander Hunting. His mawkish performance makes Luzhin seem less like an introspective embryo genius and more like a simpering dolt.

The film’s betrayal of its own central sentiment isn’t the only questionable aspect of this production – we’re in Italy, 1929, and Natalia’s mother makes some disparaging references to a ‘jewish conspiracy’ (though the scene is played for laughs). We wait for some kind of political angle to emerge, and when Luzhin is abandoned in the middle of nowhere as a result of Valentinov’s scheming, and some blackshirted soldiers appear over the horizon on motorbikes, we brace ourselves – though we’ve seen Luzhin’s mother wearing an ostentatious Russian Orthodox cross, Turtutto has played plenty of Jewish characters. But all they do is pick him up, dust him off, and take him back to the championships – and it’s only in the final credits that we’re actually told that they are indeed ‘Fascists’. That’s about it – Turati has something of a flashy Mussolini swagger about him, but even he ends up relatively sympathetic. Again, you ask yourself whether this is just Gorris and Berry being faithful to Nabokov’s text, or their own incompetence.

A charitable view would be to suggest Gorris is borrowing from Rainer W Fassbinder’s approach in The Marriage of Maria Braun,as recorded in Katz & Berling’s biography Love Is Colder Than Death:

“Before going to the press conference. I asked Rainer some questions that were
likely to come up, like why there were so many Nazis seen at the beginning and
none later on. Rainer said ‘I forgot to shoot that.’ Was that what I was supposed
to say? ‘No,’ said Rainer, ‘you tell them that the Nazis are in the beginning because
in 1933 people were much more aware of them, but then they got used to their
presence and they weren’t noticed anymore.'”

Charitable but, given the level of Gorris and Berry’s ‘achievement’ in the rest of The Luzhin Defence, extremely unlikely: with that one remark, Fassbinder displayed more wit, originality and intelligence than the people behind this picture could ever dream of.