The ever paradoxical John Turturro is one of those rare actors who makes you aware that he’s acting, but also makes it okay. Even when his performances appear mannered or overwrought—as they have more than once in his work with the Cohen brothers—they also reveal some nuanced truth, an emotional little bit that moves you, a detail of behavior that reminds you of a real experience. While he’s obviously smart and sensitive, he can play dumb (no mean feat), as well as intelligent, fretful, and hyper-self-conscious.
In Dutch director Marleen Gorris’s The Luzhin Defence, Turturro plays Alexander Luzhin, a child chess prodigy now grown up into a brilliant, twitchy, socially inept, and occasionally charming grandmaster. Written by Peter Berry, from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, *The Defense*, the film is set in 1929, at an exclusive Italian spa hosting a world championship chess match: the Russian born Luzhin is one of the favorites, and his principal adversary is the popular Italian homeboy, a self-confidently swaggering movie star of a grandmaster aptly named Turati (Fabio Sartor).
This being a film by Marleen Gorris (A Question of Silence, 1982), The Luzhin Defence makes the match an occasion for cultural and political inquiry: while the wealthy hotel guests ooh and ahh at the orderly and sometimes spectacular displays of intellectual prowess, they are surrounded by Italian soldiers, who practice drills in the background, a visual reminder of the change about to come. These images also suggest the actual unimportance of the drama that keeps the match audience’s rapt attention. Social hobnobbing, playing tennis, and sipping cocktails on the veranda are all well and good for those who can afford them, but real life will soon intervene.
Living for the time being amid the upper-crusters who find him simultaneously horrific and entrancing, Luzhin wears shabby jackets, fidgets during meals, and breaks out into odd ballroomish gyyrations for no clear reason (“I dance a little,” he admits sheepishly). But his lack of fit doesn’t bother him, for he is relentlessly focused on his game, going over moves and possibilities again and again. That focus changes abruptly when he spots (and is spotted by) the lovely Russian emigre Natalia (Emily Watson), vacationing at the spa with her persnickety mother Vera (Geraldine James). Even without exchanging a word with her, he is smitten by Natalia’s lithe form in lacy white dresses, and sly smiles from across the dining room, and so, he clambers across the great lawn to ask her to marry him. At this point, you might imagine that Natalia would be offended or just a little surprised. But she’s unruffled (and not a little pleased that her mother *is* ruffled), and informs her new suitor that she’ll give him an answer when she’s had some time to think it over.
It’s hard not to feel some affection for Luzhin: he’s such a lost puppy dog, so manifestly damaged and needy. Though Natalia doesn’t know the details, you learn most every one of them, through flashbacks to Luzhin’s childhood, intercut with tense chess games (boards shot at angles, the slap-slap of contestants hitting their timer clocks, and even—my favorite—the pieces moving as if by themselves, in fast-motion, emulating Luzhin’s subjective vision of the board, four and five moves at a time). Luzhin’s obsession with the game isn’t just because he’s good at it, but because he was traumatized when his parents’ marriage collapses and his father (Mark Tandy) begins an affair with his aunt (Orla Brady). More sensitive to the child’s concerns than either his mother or father, the aunt distracts him by teaching him to play chess. When Luzhin beats his dad at the game, the old man decides to send him off to be trained by the evil, exploitative, and utterly selfish Valentinov (Stuart Wilson).
It’s bad enough when, in a flashback, Valentinov abandons Luzhin after the poor kid loses a match (abandonment being one of Luzhin’s several raw nerves), but the film takes a turn that’s just over the top when Valentinov arrives in Italy. He decides, apparently out of spitefulness, to ruin Luzhin’s chances for winning by harrassing him until he comes undone: Valentinov stops short of twirling his mustache, but his function is all too visible.
By this time, Natalia has decided that she will love Luzhin, whom she describes as a “fascinating, enigmatic, and attractive man”; she persuades her skeptical mother and more lenient father (Peter Blythe) to help with the wedding, even though he’s been called to Italy to take her in hand. Though they note that Natalia has a history of taking in stray dogs, they both agree at last to help with wedding preparations.
More importantly, the insistent Natalia persuades Luzhin that he can have a life with her, a life that might involve chess, but that will be less sublimated and more sensual. On one level, her scheme is unselfish and grants her a moral ground in a crowd where everyone else is scrambling: she wants to save someone who patently needs saving. But on another level, Natalia’s shifting agenda is potentially shady. If at first she is primarily interested in upsetting her mother, the film suggests that Natalia becomes invested in Luzhin’s own aspirations, absorbing them so as to play a game of her own, a match of wits and power in which she is set against Valentinov. This ambiguity makes Natalia pulse a bit, and makes her good intentions less annoying than they might have been. The novel’s inevitable tragic ending is toned down somewhat in the film by Natalia’s determination to achieve a moral order and very minor triumph over the dastardly Valentinov, by symbolic means if nothing else. But despite and because of those rich folks in the foreground, the soldiers continue to lurk, reminding you that disorder is unavoidable.