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The Luzhin Defence

Having restored the original title of Vladimir Nabokov's novel, the filmmakers have taken away almost everything else. The Luzhin Defence was originally published in Russian in 1930 long before making a belated post-Lolita English debut in 1964 as The Defense. A delicate but minor tale of a chess prodigy's descent into madness, the novel has its critical defenders but it's really only for Nabokophiles, those readers who swoon over the author's exquisite wordplay and descriptive power, his intricate patternings, and the cruel postmodernist games he plays with his characters' fates and his readers' expectations. Not that any of this matters to scenarist Peter Berry or director Marleen Gorris, who have sought out the book solely for its story, as if the distinctly non-commercial Nabokov were John Steinbeck or Danielle Steel — a story, by the way, which they saw fit to change drastically anyway, as per traditional novel-to-movie adaptation. And Gorris's spotty career doesn't betray an interest in such art-for-art's-sake material. Most famous for A Question of Silence — a radical feminist separatist film that, according to one account on the Web, "reveals the oppressive nature of gender relationships across class lines in contemporary Western societies" — Gorris has lightened up a tad and gone on to make a specialty of dry literary adaptations (Mrs. Dalloway). Here, The Defense is turned into a poignant love story, condensing the events of the book into a short period of time during a chess championship held at an Italian resort, and concentrated, except for some flashbacks, on the love affair and engagement of Alexandre Luzhin (John Turturro) and his new fiancé, unnamed in the book, but now called Natalia Katkov (Emily Watson). Nabokov's novel presents this character as an almost spectral figure, perhaps a ghostly visitation of fate itself intent on luring poor Luzhin away from chess, or possibly a guardian angel protecting him from Luzhin's former mentor Valentinov (the always excellent Stuart Wilson) — both interpretations could work. Made corporeal by an elegant, endearing Watson, the character is now a fierce defender of Luzhin (as Nabokov's wife was of him), and in one of the many additions to the story, is instrumental in carrying on Luzhin's legacy in a key and upbeat climactic scene. The movie's relationship to the book, as in so many adaptations of Nabokov, is tangential, probably because Nabokov is a fantasist of patterns, which requires filmmakers with an eye for detail. After Kubrick's Lolita, only a Welles or Ophuls could do the author justice. Columbia TriStar's DVD release of The Luzhin Defence comes in a crisp anamorphic transfer (1.85:1), with audio in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround, with subtitles in English, French, and Spanish. For extras, there's the trailer, cast and crew bios, and a "making-of" featurette of just under three minutes that even still contains lots of clips from the film. The main supplement is an audio commentary from director Gorris, on which she explains that most of the film was shot near Lake Como around the former estate of the late Italian director "Luigi" Visconti, who shot his movie "Tony" and his Brothers nearby. Really, is even a minimum of preparation too much to ask from directors doing these commentaries? Keep-case.
—D.K. Holm

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