Category Archives: Archived Movies

THE LUZHIN DEFENCE

B-

Vladimir Nabokov was the finest novelist of the twentieth century, which probably explains why films based on his books have been largely unsatisfactory; their greatness lies in a uniquely literary character that stubbornly resists transition to stage or screen. (It’s impossible to imagine how “Pale Fire,” perhaps the highest example of his genius, could possibly be adapted to another medium.) There have been exceptions, of course. Kubrick’s “Lolita” (1962), while very different from the original, was superb in its own peculiar way (Adrian Lyne’s 1997 version, though reverentially faithful to the source, was pedestrian by comparison), and Fassbinder’s “Despair” (1978), while flawed, had many moments of real brilliance. On the other hand, Jerzy Skolimowski’s adaptation of Nabokov’s second novel, “King, Queen, Knave” (1972), was feeble, and Tony Richardson’s attempt to transfer “Laughter in the Dark” into cinematic terms in 1969 was an unmitigated disaster. (Stage versions have been no less dicey. Edward Albee endured one of his mid-career catastrophes with a quick-closing Broadway version of “Lolita” in 1981, and Alan Jay Lerner’s musicalization of the same book, rechristened “Lolita, My Love,” died a decade earlier during out-of-town tryouts.) I must confess that I’ve not had the opportunity to see Gregory Mosher’s 2000 filming of “Laughter in the Dark,” nor John Goldschmidt’s 1986 take on VN’s debut novel “Maschenka”–Englished as “Mary”–though the fact that the latter’s script was penned by the redoubtable John Mortimer makes it an enticing, if elusive, prospect. There was also a 1993 film by Jerome Foulon based on Nabokov’s autobiographical short story “Mademoiselle O,” about his French governess, but it’s proven equally inaccessible.

Now Marleen Gorris, whose amiable “Antonia’s Line” (1995) won an Oscar as best foreign-language film and whose “Mrs. Dalloway” (1997) succeeded in bringing Virginia Woolf’s novel to vivid life on the screen, tries her hand on the third of Nabokov’s Russian-language novels. On the printed page “The Luzhin Defence” (which was translated simply as “The Defense” back in 1964) is a melancholy, almost surrealistic tale of a chess master’s descent into madness. A very interior work without a great deal of action or plot, it would hardly seem a likely candidate for cinematic treatment. Gorris and screenwriter Peter Berry have addressed this problem by remolding the piece, fleshing out the character of the emigre woman who loves the protagonist and tries to save him from the obsession with the board game that threatens his sanity, while presenting Luzhin’s mental breakdown not simply as caused by his own personal demons but as the result of a plot by his erstwhile mentor-manager Valentinov to drive his former pupil mad. (It also adds a coda in response to contemporary demands for an even vaguely happy ending, in which Luzhin triumphs posthumously over his foes.) This heavy alteration enhances the romantic side of the story (also added is a suave French count who’s Luzhin’s rival for his sweetheart’s affections), while imposing on it an explicit and concrete “conspiracy” scenario totally absent from the book. The character of Valentinov, in particular, is vastly expanded into a nemesis who’s very real, rather than an encapsulation of the imagined forces that threaten Luzhin in the novel. The result is a narrative far less oblique and dreamy than that which Nabokov fashioned; the piece becomes something more conventional and, thereby, more filmable.

Not that this would have especially bothered the author. Nabokov noted how different Kubrick’s “Lolita” was from his book, and even published the screenplay he’d written for it (which the director basically ignored), but he still praised the result; and the fact that he then went on to sell adaptation rights to Lerner and Albee (as well as an option to turn it into an opera, something not yet realized) indicates that, with as keen an eye for profit as for an elegant phrase, he wasn’t exactly overprotective of his creations. What’s remarkable about this version of “The Defense,” however, is how the change in the Valentinov figure perfectly embodies the irony inherent in such adaptation. In the book, Valentinov, after abandoning Luzhin the fading prodigy, goes into the movie business and becomes an oafish, fast-talking producer; he largely forgets about his erstwhile pupil until he calls him out of the blue, not to drive him mad but merely to ask him to appear in a potboiler flick he’s preparing dealing with a chess tournament. It’s Luzhin who misunderstands everything and lets Valentinov’s reappearance drive him literally over the edge. What the makers of “The Luzhin Defence” have done with Valentinov is delightfully similar to what the character in the book was trying to do with Luzhin: use him crassly in an attempt to commercialize a rarefied cinema subject. The master, with his impish sense of humor, would certainly have appreciated–and been vastly amused by–the wonderful, if unintentional, symmetry.

Setting aside questions about the picture’s fidelity to its source and taking it simply on its own terms, however, “The Luzhin Defence” is an admirable, if imperfect, effort. It’s beautifully appointed, shot on Italian and Hungarian locations that are very evocative and lovely. Gorris gives it a nice rhythm, refusing to hurry things along but not allowing them to go slack either (and not acceding to the temptation to adopt an overly emphatic chess board motif). And while John Turturro isn’t completely successful as the odd, often benumbed Luzhin (at times his blank bewilderment is entirely too reminiscent of his turn in “Barton Fink”), Emily Watson is utterly radiant as Natalia, the woman who becomes the ever-active queen to Luzhin’s king, protecting him vigilantly against all the forces arrayed against him. Stuart Wilson, on the other hand, is too conventionally lip-smacking as the villainous Valentinov; but Geraldine James and Peter Blythe are properly snooty as Natalia’s parents, and, in flashback, Alexander Hunting and Mark Tandy persuasive as the younger Luzhin and his father. The film’s production design by Tony Burrough is frequently exquisite, and the cinematography of Bernard Lutic very lush. In sets and costumes the picture is exceptionally elegant, resembling an especially fine “Masterpiece Theatre” episode. There’s also a good score by Alexandre Desplat, which at one important point incorporates the same waltz by Shostakovoch that Kubrick utilized in “Eyes Wide Shut.” Perhaps some obscure homage was intended.

“The Luzhin Defence” can’t be called a fully realized version of the book, or even a great film, but (like Gorris’ “Mrs. Dalloway”) it has a poise and serenity that prove impressive on their own. Anyone looking for an intriguing period piece, lovingly composed and shot, should find it amply rewarding.

THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS

Grade: A-

Disney has pulled off quite a coup by reissuing Tim Burton’s darkly enchanting 1983 fantasy just several short weeks before the premiere of the lavish live-action version of “How the Grinch stole Christmas,” with which it shares more than a few elements. Looking great and sounding glorious on the big screen, Burton’s perversely lovable creation sets a high bar indeed for Jim Carrey and Ron Howard, and though one could always watch it on DVD or video on a television set, the effect in a real theatre is simply magical.

Of course, the story of Jack Skellington, the pumpkin king of Holloweentown who, in an effort to add something new to his “life,” seizes Santa Claus and takes over Christmas (with decidedly ghoulish results), will be a trifle too spooky for the toddler set, but older kids and adults should find it entrancing, even if the spell weakens somewhat in the laat half-hour when villain Oogie Boogie takes center stage; he’s the least interesting concoction to be found here. Otherwise even the edges of the frames are consistently filled with wondrous creations, the backgrounds are astonishingly lovely, and the jokes charmingly weird. (The montage of kids reacting to the horrifying gifts left them by Jack remains a delight.) This time around, especially savor the excellence of Danny Elfman’s music and lyrics, which have a Lloyd Webber sound but greater melodic variety that the stage composer usually provides; and listen to Elfman’s ethereal voice in the sung part of Jack’s role, too. And while you’re watching, think about the fact that through this flick, largely done with superb stop-motion but also including lots of digital effects, Burton really paved the way for the explosion of non-conventional animation efforts which have graced theatres in the seven intervening years.

Light, amusingly macabre, droll, looking and sounding freshly-minted and coming across the finish line at a spiffy 75 minutes, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” remains a marvelous holiday treat with more luscious tricks up its sleeve than almost any brand-new picture has to offer.