The Luzhin Defence 2000 UK/France
Directed by Marleen Gorris
Entertainment in Video DVD Region 2
The Luzhin Defence is based on Vladimir Nabokov’s (Lola) novel The Defense but I have to come clean and let you know up front here that I’ve not read this novel so one of the things I can’t tell you in this mini review is how it measures up to the source material. Apologies on that one.
That being said... it’s a wonderful period movie about a Russian chess player, brilliantly played by John Turturro and his relationship both to chess and to a woman, played by the always excellent Emily Watson (who I absolutely adored in Alan Rudolph’s Trixie).
Turturro is playing very much against type in this one... when I usually think of John Turturro I usually think of him as a villain... or crazy... or quite often both. Here he plays an absolute genius who is completely out of touch with real life and wanders around in a daze without really knowing what is going on outside of his chess-addled brain. Kind of an amalgam of what you might get if you crossed Cary Grant’s character from Bringing Up Baby with Roy Scheider’s Brody character in Jaws. A kind of absent-minded, distracted rock of a guy.
As far as the chess goes, the mise-en-scene never really lets up, constantly presenting statues and other verticals to remind you of the vertical pieces standing on a chess board.
As far as the woman goes... Emily Watson plays Natalia who Luzhin actually accidentally talks to one day and then the next day proposes marriage to her on the strength of it. Since this self-assured young lady is looking for someone different from the normal crowd, she lets herself become fascinated with Luzhin, accepts his proposal (much to the dismay of her mother) and starts to slip herself heartily into Luzhin’s life. A montage of chess cross cut with sex soon pops up before you, complete with strong, thrusting movements of the castle and the sound of Shostakovich’s famous Waltz No. 2 from Jazz Suite No. 2. This is great stuff.
All, however, is not well in the Luzhin camp and dark and dodgy “fixing” is going on at the chess championships in the form of Luzhin’s ex-chess tutor who is trying to use his harsh former master/pupil relationship with him to put him at a psychological disadvantage so he loses the game. And the trouble with Luzhin is, he’s both too innocent and too distracted to be able to defend himself against such “chess intrigue” shenanigans.
I don’t want to give too much away about the movie but... well things get pretty dark and although there is a brief moment of displaced victory at the end of the film... this is not nearly enough recompense for the deadly consequences of living your life with a head full of chess.
If you like tortured genius mixed in with your chess-mongery then this little known gem is definitely worth looking out for.