Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

 
Film
Bookmark and Share
Text:AAA



+ The Luzhin Defence review


And she shatters his safe world


Marleen Gorris sits in a hotel room in downtown Washington DC, relaxed and ready to talk about her new film, The Luzhin Defence. She has a kind of correctness about her: she sits up straight and speaks carefully. The 53-year-old writer-director began her filmmaking career in her native Netherlands, when she wrote and directed A Question of Silence in 1982, and then went on to make Broken Mirrors (1984), The Last Island (1991), and the Academy Ward-winning Antonia’s Line (1995). Before Luzhin, she made her first English language film, Mrs. Dalloway in 1997, based on the novel by Virginia Woolf. With Luzhin, she is working from a script based on Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, The Defense.



Cynthia Fuchs:

What attracted you to this story?



Marleen Gorris:

It wasn’t actually the novel that attracted me, it was the script. The script was very well written I thought, it was really moving. Then when I read the novel, I thought I probably wouldn’t have wanted to make a film of the novel. I thought it was very bleak and cerebral. The character was almost totally atrophied. There were a couple of other people in the story, but they didn’t seem to matter very much. The scriptwriter had added characters and made it a more filmic story. I was intrigued by this very strange guy who didn’t seem to be able to cope with these two great passions in his life, and how he got to be that way.



CF:

How do respond to a script? Do you see visual images first, or a larger structure, something else?



MG:

I don’t know exactly what the process is. When you read a script, the first criterion is, do you keep reading? Does it keep you occupied and are you intrigued? And of course, you read very fast, I don’t know how many hundreds of scripts I’ve read. So if it holds your attention, then you’re already halfway. I don’t really know how you visualize; it’s very interesting, one’s thought process. Do you think in black and white? Do you think in color? And when you think about language, is it always in your own language?



CF:

How did you conceive interweaving the two Luzhin stories in their different time frames, as well as Natalia’s own familial drama?



MG:

By showing Alexander Luzhin as a child, you begin to understand how he became what he became. So that connection is much clearer. But with Natalia, you see her as a grown-up person only, and she seems to be a much stronger person, with a will of her own. Her parents seem to be able to accept that; and their relationship is strong, even though it’s conventional. They want her to marry somebody who’s suitable, who has money. With Luzhin, it isn’t so much that he was neglected or that his parents didn’t love him, but that they are so occupied with trying to find out what their own lives are about that the boy got little attention. So they seem to feel indifferent toward him. Then his mother abandons him by dying and his father wants to start living a life of his own—and is upset that the boy is better at chess than he is. It’s almost like he stops loving the boy then. The boy goes out to bury the chess pieces, to bury the object that offended, to win back his father’s love. But his father literally gives the boy away to this chess tutor, who uses him as a way to get money, like a prizefighter. And then of course, he went away and never developed any emotionality, and concentrated completely on chess. And that is such an involved game, it can sort of eat you up. He didn’t really need anything, until a new force came into his life. And she shatters his safe world.



CF:

Natalia is a bit of a player, she knows the stakes, that the game is not just chess.



MG:

She’s the one that acts. She’s the first one that seems to be interested in this weird character. And then, almost against her will, she does fall for him. So it’s at several levels that she is the one that acts and he reacts.



CF:

Chess is a difficult topic to film.



MG:

Yes, everybody will tell you this!



CF:

Do you play chess?



MG:

No, I don’t. [Laughs.] When I set out with this story, I thought, I’ll have to learn to play chess now, and I did get to know a little about the moves, but the level at which chess is played in this film is so high, that I’ll never get there, even if I study for a year. So I was advised by an English grandmaster. He was almost a cliche: tall and gangling and uncared for, and he had thick glasses and tics. He was a lovely man, but almost impossible to follow. When you asked him a question, he wouldn’t just tell you about that particular move, but he’d tell you its history and who first made it in 1880 and stuff like that. So you never got a simple answer. He was a totally involved man. John Turturro spent time with him and was greatly helped. He invented and executed all the moves, and I think Sony Classic recently gave a preview for a group of top chess players and apparently they all loved the film. There aren’t that many films, there is Searching for Bobby Fisher, which is a lovely film, but almost ten years old now. So they were happy to see a film that showed that chess could be fun, because they want to spread the game.



CF:

How was it to work with John? He appears to be such an open-to-everything kind of actor, not really a movie star.



MG:

He’s not a typical movie star, though he’s well known. Emily Watson too: they’re both actors, they like to do parts that are more extraordinary. That’s why I asked them, because I like their style of acting and their presence.



CF:

You worked together to develop Luzhin as a character?



MG:

On movies you don’t have time to rehearse—the actors are busy, or the producer doesn’t want to put up the money to enable you to have a couple of extra weeks. So what I always try to do with my films, and I think it works very well, is get a couple of days and just talk. We discuss the roles, and everything under the sun, just to get to know each other. So I did that with John—he was in Los Angeles working on Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, and he had a few days and I went there and for four days we talked, about two months before we started shooting. That is a happy thing, because as an actor you can lay the foundation for your role, and mull it over and build on it. John went to chess matches and talked to these people and learned more chess, he knew a little at first.



CF:

On some level, chess is very guy-oriented. But Luzhin is so not masculine in some ways, and his mind becomes so transparent for us.



MG:

Well, in the way that Luzhin is played by John Turturro, there is a marked difference between when he plays chess and when he doesn’t. When he plays chess he becomes very strong and he’s very male. He blows his smoke in the opponent’s face. Our advisor used to say, “Chess is war.” And I never thought of chess like that, but they do. It’s not a game, it’s deadly serious, and you are there to win. That is also strong in Turturro, the way he acts that. And on the other hand, he’s very childlike. He’s in a world of his own or, what happens when he first comes across Valentinov again—he reverts completely to what he must have been as a little boy. His features collapse and he crosses his legs like a little boy who has to go to the loo.



CF:

He’s also an interesting contrast to the Italian grandmaster, who’s such a celebrity.



MG:

We chose his opponent to be an Italian, and the Italians are rooting for the Italian. And he’s based on a character in Nabokov’s book, who was in turn based on a real-life grandmaster.



CF:

The Italian background is important also for the proto-fascist soldiers who appear occasionally: did they come from the book?



MG:

No, they were not in the novel. And it was not in the script, but I put it in, though I didn’t want to stress it because it didn’t have strongly to do with the post-First War political situation, but it was definitely happening at that time. So, I thought it would be a good idea to have an impending doom even at this beautiful resort, to make you feel that Fascism was on the move. And somehow, consciously or unconsciously, you would see that things were not right with the world. But actually, very few people have noticed it. I think I was too subtle with these uniforms and what-have-you. But in America, strangely enough, everyone notices them.



CF:

Because in the U.S., we’re sensitive to impending doom.



MG:

I have wondered about that, because in Europe they should know what these uniforms stand for.



CF:

How do you think about the way your films play in different places?



MG:

Well, it’s great that they do travel as they do. I was surprised at the way Antonia’s Line was received, for instance. There is something in that film that transcends boundaries, because everyone seems to like that film, whether they live in Japan or South Africa or in Brazil. That’s wonderful that a film can travel like that. I presume this doesn’t always happen.



CF:

Has your approach to filmmaking changed over the years?



MG:

In the very beginning when I didn’t know anything about making films, I guess you could say that I mainly wanted to get the story across: content rather than form. And as I got to know more about film, I started to concentrate more on both. So in that sense, it has changed, fortunately, because I wouldn’t want to be exactly the same as I was 20 years ago. It’s partly a question of money. My first films were very inexpensive, so I had to shoot them in about five or six weeks, and you can’t pay as much attention to detail.



CF:

Did the success of Antonia’s Line change your perception of your audience?



MG:

If you go from a fairly obscure language, of a small country, and you make your films there, like Antonia’s Line, even before it won the Oscar, because it sold all over before that. So it was a film that kind of escaped its boundaries. A small language film is usually limited, and when you get to make a film in English, you know that half of the world is capable of seeing that film without subtitles. All English language films go other places, though American blockbusters are currently cornering the market. I don’t know if I consciously reckoned with that in my head, but the thing is that when you get more money, you make your films differently. This can be a wonderful thing and sometimes it’s not.



CF:

Another encouraging aspect of Antonia’s Line‘s popularity is that it is so unconventional in its structure, moving back and forth in time.



MG:

Audiences have become so sophisticated, you don’t need very much to tell them, “We’re going into the past now.” You glide into it, and they go with you, no problem. It’s all become part of the game, I think.



CF:

It’s also a question of exposure—how viewers become aware of alternatives to blockbusters.



MG:

One of the problems in Europe is that American studio films have so much money that they can market them extensively, and almost ram them down the distributors’ throats. So what happens, not only in Holland, but also in Europe, is that there are fewer foreign films to see. And when they first set out to do multi-screen theaters, everybody said, “Oh, that’s a good idea, because there will be more screens.” But it’s just more of the same. You have 12 cinemas and 10 of them will play the same film. I think actually one answer will be to restore the smaller cinemas in the cities, and keep them open for the “better films,” as we would call them, and then the big multiplexes for the people who want to go out on Friday night and know what they want to see. Or, what the studio has taught them to want to see. They always think they’ve made a decision themselves, but they’re being manipulated left, right, and center.



CF:

Cable television is one option, increasingly, for production and distribution.



MG:

Yes, but the art of actually going to the big screen is dying out.



CF:

Do you go to the movies a lot?



MG:

Not as often as I would like. But when I do, I like to go in the afternoon, and when I sit in front of that screen, I just sigh with relief, it’s like, I’m home.



CF:

Did you watch a lot of movies when you were a child?



MG:

No, I didn’t. And I only became interested in making movies when I wrote my first screenplay. I was with a theater company, and didn’t know anything about the screenplay, but I thought I could learn about the technicalities later. So I set out to write a screenplay and then I filmed it. And that turned out to be A Question of Silence. I didn’t see many films when I was young, more when I was a student. But it was only much later that I thought I wanted to make it my profession. It was because of my writing.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


Comments
Now on PopMatters
PM Picks
Announcements

© 1999-2014 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters.com™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.