No Pawn Intended

The Luzhin Defence, set in 1929, is about a great and woeful chess player, Alexander Luzhin (John Turturro), who is caught between two obsessions and ends up serving neither. His passion for the game is what initially attracts the attentions of the aristocratic Russian Natalia (Emily Watson) during a championship match held at a North Italian lakeside resort. Luzhin is so uncommunicative as to be almost autistic; Natalia draws out his energies. He proposes to her shortly after meeting her, in a lightning move that has the unexpectedness, and yet the rightness, of a brilliant chess gambit. Natalia sees beyond Luzhin’s genius, beyond his madness too. She wants to help him live a normal life away from the chessboard. Natalia is the opposite of an enabler, but what she doesn’t recognize is that Luzhin is doomed whichever way he turns: The labyrinth of chess is no solace, and her love cannot save him.

The stage is set for a wonderful movie, and yet The Luzhin Defence, based on the Vladimir Nabokov novel The Defense, never courts greatness. What the film needed was a grand-master filmmaker equal to the grand-master novelist. The Defense, originally written in Russian, is, despite its chesslike literary stratagems, deeply felt, almost Chekhovian. The passages relating to Luzhin’s stricken boyhood have a rapturous singularity, with every description and psychological detail freshly mined, as if we were reading a classic children’s fable. The ambiguous continuity of Luzhin’s childhood into his adult years is part of the deeper meaning of the work, but it’s a subtler meaning than what comes across in the film, which draws a straight line between Luzhin’s skimped childhood and the tragic dither of his later life. Marleen Gorris, who directed from a script by Peter Berry, has a literal-minded view of Luzhin’s despair, and she encourages John Turturro to give a shambling, nut-brained performance. Luzhin wears dark, soiled suits in the bright sunshine and mumbles to himself and all the world; we are supposed to pity his condition much more than we are meant to be in awe of his prowess. His genius is shown to be isolating, intimidating – not worth it.

Gorris’s approach may be preferable to the usual movie convention in which genius and madness are gloriously twinned; it’s beneficial that the film plumps for the ordered sanity of a settled life rather than the tortuousness of Luzhin’s chess-crazed days. But something is lost in all this carefulness: the true fire of inspiration. Luzhin’s genius is regarded clinically, as something to be diagnosed, and so are his fitful attempts at normalcy. Natalia’s ministrations are touching, and Emily Watson has a remarkable purity in the role, but there’s a dullness to what she is asked to do. The psychology of an infinitely caring and compliant woman who chooses to devote herself to a hyperbrilliant headcase is rich terrain for drama. A fire would have been lit under this movie if we could spot inside Natalia’s doting niceties an obsessiveness to match Luzhin’s. When she shows off her deeply strange suitor to her aghast mother with the words “Isn’t he wonderful?,” there’s no irony or upset in the air. Luzhin really is meant to be wonderful at that moment, and we are directed to look down our noses at Natalia’s disapproving elders. The film makes it easy for us to feel superior.

The braveness of Nabokov’s book is in its implication that ultimately it is wrong to protect Luzhin from himself, from his art. Luzhin is Nabokov the artist’s rendition of another artist, a worst-case artist, and inside this portrait is a plea not so much to save him as to let him be. The film invents a heroic, crowd-pleasing coda to the book that lets the air out of its despair and props up Natalia as the eternal keeper of the flame. It’s a satisfying and clever finish, but it serves to reinforce what is mushy about the movie. All the Luzhins in the audience will take heart, though: Guys, no matter how screwed-up you may be, the right woman is out there waiting for you.

As if things weren’t bad enough for the dot-commers, now we have Wayne Wang’s The Center of the World, in which a brainy computer engineer, Richard (Peter Sarsgaard), neglects the details of his upcoming IPO bonanza in favor of a weekend in Vegas with a lap dancer. Florence (Molly Parker), the lap lady, works by day as a drummer in a rock band in L.A., and she agrees to the weekend for a whopping fee of ten grand and a set of conditions that would give the Marlon Brando of Last Tango in Paris a nostalgic glow. (Sample conditions: no talk of feelings, no kissing on the mouth.) The film was shot in varying textures of digital video in order to encourage a voyeuristic feel, but what we are peeking into has
no compelling interest. That this power-play-role-play scenario has been brought into the techno-geek-millionaire era doesn’t make it any less familiar. Wang, who conceived the project and then brought in a passel of writers, including Paul Auster, to (so to speak) flesh it out, apparently began with a much more involving premise: A San Franciscan, Wang has stated that he was intrigued by the connection between high-tech venture capitalists and the Bay Area’s strip clubs, and the ways in which a lot of business gets done in those clubs. That’s a subculture worth making a movie about. The dance he ended up with is on the wrong lap.

In Brief: Harry (Sergi López) is a cheerful predator with a flat, thin mouth and a Cheshire-cat grin in the new French psychological thriller With a Friend Like Harry … . He believes that ecstasy is the only way to fulfillment and proves it by gulping raw egg yolks after each orgasm. (Don’t try this at home.) Directed by Dominik Moll, the film is about how Harry insinuates himself into the family of an old schoolmate who hardly remembers him and proceeds, with the best of pathological intentions, to savage his life. As murderous amusements go, the film is mildly diverting, but it’s like a faint facsimile of a Claude Chabrol film, and I am reminded of the fact that Chabrol’s own recent films rarely get distributed in this country anymore. Where’s the justice in that?

The Luzhin Defence
Directed by Marleen Gorris; starring John Turturro and Emily Watson.
The Center of the World
Directed by Wayne Wang.

No Pawn Intended