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'Luzhin's Defence': Armed With Love

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 4, 2001

   


    'The Luhzin Defence' John Turturro, Stuart Wilson and Emily Watson in the chess drama "The Luzhin Defence."
(Mark Tillie/Sony Pictures Classics)
The similarities are obvious between director Marleen Gorris's "The Luzhin Defence" and "Shine," Scott Hicks's 1996 film about madness-damaged genius and the healing power of love. And not just because both films deal with occupations traditionally not listed among the world's most adrenaline-charged fields ("Luzhin" takes place against the backdrop of a grandmaster chess tournament, while the concert piano circuit was the rarified setting of "Shine"). Sprouting a Chia Pet is inherently more cinematic than championship chess.

Still, just as Hicks did for the keyboard, Gorris makes the chessboard sexy, mostly by focusing not on it but on the people sitting at it. In this case, the main character is a Russian grandmaster named Alexander Luzhin, played with idiosyncratic intensity by the great character actor John Turturro.

To say he's eccentric is putting it mildly. Dressed in a smudged and threadbare suit that looks slept in, Luzhin spends much of his time between matches strolling the picturesque grounds of the lakeside resort where his faceoff with Italian grandmaster Turati (Fabio Sartor) is taking place. As though he's communicating with the mothership, he avoids eye contact with staff and guests, focusing instead on the empty middle distance. He mutters and talks to himself, scribbling furiously with a stubby pencil in a dog-eared note pad. He dances with himself. In the rain.

And, in the process, he falls in love with pretty Russian aristocrat Natalia (Emily Watson), on holiday with her parents not to watch chess but to get to know the Comte de Stassard (Christopher Thompson), a far more suitable mate whom her parents (Peter Blythe and Geraldine James) have fixed her up with.

Miraculously, she loves Luzhin back. Now, I say miraculously because Gorris and writer Peter Berry, working from a book by Vladimir Nabokov, give us very little to explain exactly what Natalia sees in this odd duck. Natalia's abrupt new suitor exhibits behavior that borders on the rude, and one imagines that a man who never appears to shave, bathe, brush his teeth or change his underwear can't smell very nice.

But little matter. Chalk it up to one of those movie things you're meant to accept on faith. What helps – in addition to flashbacks showing that Luzhin was, in fact, a fairly normal little boy – is Watson's ability to make nose-thumbing seem proper. The actress makes you believe in the plausibility of implausible choices by grounding every action in what seems to be a subliminal desire to tick people off.

But "Luzhin" is more than just an unorthodox love story. As the action between the sheets heats up, the chess action does, too. Adding intrigue to the competition is the appearance of Luzhin's childhood chess tutor, Valentinov (Stuart Wilson), a villain who now wants to sabotage his former pupil's chances in order to vindicate his own loss of faith in him.

As the wedding approaches, so does a climactic showdown with Turati, but Natalia wisely senses that Luzhin is too fragile, too overwrought to handle both stresses simultaneously. Ultimately, he will face a dilemma: to continue the match and risk dying of stress (does this disease happen anywhere other than in the movies?) or to give up the game – and in the process his reason for living.

One major difference between "Shine" and "Luzhin": Where the earlier film concentrated on the paternal stresses and expectations that drove its hero, David Helfgott, bonkers, Gorris's picture spends less time speculating about how Luzhin the sweet-faced boy became Luzhin the adult nut. A broken home and a stern taskmaster seem hardly sufficient.

Where it succeeds best is not in describing how Luzhin got broken but how love fixed him, albeit temporarily. Its ending is not one you'd ever describe as happy, and yet its endgame contains a note of optimism, hope, even uplift. If its message is one where the meanings of winning and losing are not always clear, at least Gorris shows that the lessons of loss are sometimes more important than the satisfactions of a hollow victory.

Maybe Samuel Butler was right when he wrote, " 'Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have lost at all."

"The Luzhin Defence" (PG-13, 106 minutes) – Contains a discreet bedroom scene and sensuality.

 

Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company


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