Games People Play

Vladimir Nabokov considered The Luzhin Defense, a case study of a chess champ's midtournament crack-up, to be the warmest of his Russian novels—and although the writer is no one's idea of a humanist pussycat, his portrait of a terminally awkward genius is as touching as it is sardonic. Certainly, the novel's sentimental potential has not been lost on Dutch director Marleen Gorris. Nor has it eluded John Turturro, who, given the most romantic role of his career, fully inhabits the ungainly Luzhin.

Set during the 1920s, mainly at the posh Italian spa hosting a world championship chess match, Gorris's generally respectful adaptation arranges each scene as a sort of old-world china shop delicately primed for her protagonist's befuddled, loping entrance. A definitive absent-minded professor (or otherworldly film critic), Turturro's Luzhin is chain-smoking, unshaven, and dressed in a jacket with a mysterious coating of chalk dust; distracted by his own thoughts and consequently amazed by whatever appears before him, he can barely manage a complete sentence. Nevertheless, the maestro does not fail to notice the winsome Natalia (Emily Watson), vacationing in the company of her controlling mother and indulgent father.

Although Natalia and her parents are supposedly Russian émigrés, they come across as upper-crust Brits, variously fascinated, bewildered, or appalled by the bizarre antics of the uncouth Luzhin. There's no undercurrent of displacement. Turturro doesn't seem particularly Russian either—he might as well have dropped from the moon—but then, the movie is his show. The actor is not only marvelously obsessive but also, playing a far more nuanced eccentric than his customary Coen geek, more handsome than he's ever seemed on-screen—particularly when he turns his beseeching gaze on Watson.

The man who fell to earth: Turturro in The Luzhin Defense
photo: Mark Tillie
The man who fell to earth: Turturro in The Luzhin Defense

Details

The Luzhin Defense
Directed by Marleen Gorris
Written by Peter Berry, from the novel by Vladimir Nabokov
Sony Pictures Classics
Opens April 20

With a Friend Like Harry . . .
Directed by Dominik Moll
Written by Moll and Gilles Marchand
Miramax Zoë
Opens April 20

Hidden Wars of Desert Storm
Directed by Gerard Ungerman and Audrey Brohy
The F.L.I.R. Project
Directed by Michael McNulty
Cinema Village
Opens April 20

The actress's corresponding wide-eyed Kewpie-doll stare seems the unfortunate residue of her role as the walking malaprop in last year's Trixie, but she does make her interest in Turturro's lovable lunatic convincing. The actors demonstrate considerable rapport, if not precisely erotic chemistry, in projecting their characters' attempt to invent their own rules. It's typical that Luzhin's abrupt proposal of marriage would occur while Natalia was in the midst of playing tennis (with someone else) and that he would understand her obligation to finish the game before favoring him with her reply.

Luzhin's unique courtship is intercut with his headlong progress through the tournament, leading to the inevitable championship game with the incongruously gangsterish reigning player. Events are further punctuated with extended passages of Luzhin's childhood memories or, once Valentinov (Stuart Wilson), his sinister Svengali, materializes to give his former charge the evil eye, flashbacks to his early career. Chess is associated with Luzhin's unhappy family and his experience of desertion; there's scarcely a hint of the ferocious ego the game demands. With Valentinov's arrival, the trap closes—despite the new combination, namely his engagement to Natalia, that Luzhin has introduced into his game.

In the novel, Luzhin clings to chess as the only tangible order in a world of confusing phantoms: "He sat leaning on his cane and thinking that with a Knight's move of this lime tree standing on a sunlit slope one could take that telephone pole over there, and simultaneously tried to remember what exactly he had just been talking about." Like her protagonist, Gorris finds chessboard patterns everywhere, but only rarely indulging in the odd expressionist angle, she's cautious in her visualizations. (The major blunder is the corny montage juxtaposing Luzhin's lovemaking and his chess playing.)

Gorris struggles to give her hero a physical dimension. "I dance a little," he giggles at one point, giddy in his incoherence. In a further concession to contemporary taste—not surprising in view of her militantly feminist movies like A Question of Silence—Gorris strives to imbue Natalia with added moral powers. The movie accentuates her rebellious spirit by giving her a handsome suitor to spurn and inventing a feel-good endgame that, while sacrificing the novelist's intent, does allow the pawn to become a queen.


What's his game? That's the big question for most of the reasonably nifty French thriller With a Friend Like Harry . . . A succés d'estime on its home ground, winner of several Cesars, Dominik Moll's murderous dark comedy opens with a young paterfamilias escaping momentarily from his hot, cramped automobile (a bit of hell on wheels populated by a harried wife and three demonically whimpering tots) for a gas-station men's room and a chance meeting with an insistently friendly, barely remembered classmate.

Michel (Laurent Lucas) seems a poor, overburdened schnook married to the similarly put-upon Claire (Mathilde Seigner); Harry (Sergi López), by contrast, is rich and healthy, with a perpetual smirk and a cutie-pie fiancée named Plum (Sophie Guillemin) whom he is planning to take to the Alps. So why do Harry and Plum insist on following Michel and Claire back to the decrepit old farmhouse they have purchased as a weekend home? Amid the domestic muddle of bottle warming, nappy changing, and ongoing brattiness, Michel discovers that his meddling parents have taken it upon themselves to install a fuchsia bathroom, which eventually serves as the movie's nexus of fantasy. Clearly Harry and Plum are not the only ones to have invaded Michel's life. By contrast to this cheerily conspiratorial couple, he and Claire are always frowning.

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