Movie Review By Moira Sullivan
The Luzhin Defense by Dutch filmmaker Marleen Gorris made its international debut at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall and is now opening in San Francisco.
Set in Italy in 1929 the film stars John Turturro as Alexandar Luzhin, a brilliant Russian chess player who only knows the game and is lost without it. From an early age he turns to chess, much to the concern of his parents who in the end allow a miserly teacher to tutor him and help him advance in the game. A cruel sadist, the teacher later abandons Luzhin for not being the pin of perfection he feels a chess master should be. On his own, Luzhin works the chess competition circuit, achieves international acclaim and on a world tournament in Italy meets Natalia, played by Emily Watson. He immediately decides he want to marry her and almost as quickly, she consents. Natalia has constraints of her own: Vera, a meddling mother played by Geraldine James who wants to marry her off to a suitor of her choice which she of course resists. Later Natalia tries to convince Luzhin to give up the game when because of his obsession, he starts to lose his health and sanity. The love affair between these two 'enfants terribles', at least to their proteges, is believable because Gorris is able to capture their emotional intensity.
Gorris has come a long way as a filmmaker with The Luzhin Defense. In 1982 she won the public prize at the Créteil Film de Femmes festival for A Question of Silence, a film about three women, complete strangers to one another, who together murder a shop keeper. They are defended by a woman lawyer and the reason for their crime later becomes obvious, at least to women who shop till they drop. In 1996 Gorris went on to win an Oscar for Antonia's Line, a feel good film with a multiarch of characters, all connected to matriarch Antonia. The film clearly demonstrated Gorris' excellent craftsmanship of the film medium.
The Luzhin Defense now shows that Gorris has become a master of the film instrument. It is a glowing European art film, not in terms of camera angles or flashback sequences but in the precise and rich use of the camera and editing. Gorris' dedication to the 'mis en scéne'-- the composition of the frame, with each one handcrafted for set design, costumes and the movement of the body within its expanse, is done in a low key yet savory style.
The filmmaker brought the film to Paris at the Créteil Film de Femmes Festival held March 23 to April 1-- for a sneak preview before its general release in France. Admitting that she didn’t like the book as much as the screenplay by Peter Berry , she told the audience that the character played by Emily Watson is given much more leg room. Gorris said she wanted to show more about the woman who falls in love with Luzhin. This is a different role for Watson, revealing her brilliant versatility. Turturro's performance as usual is outstanding.
The Luzhin Defense was shot at the home of Italian director Luchino Visconti known for his adaptation of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and any resemblances to his work are of course due to Gorris affinity to the master.
This is Moira Sullivan for Movie Magazine International, Paris, France.
© 2001 - Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 4/01
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