Searching for John Turturro … Multi-Murder, He Wrote

Unconventional films with dismal commercial prospects

dominate the scene this week. The Luzhin

Defence may sound like a Cold War spy epic, but it’s really a muted period

piece, based on an early book by Vladimir Nabokov, about an odd romance between

a bizarre grandmaster at chess and a rebellious upper-class Russian socialite.

Directed by Marleen Gorris, who displayed a flair for costumes and décor in the

1996 foreign-film Oscar winner Antonia’s

Line , it pays more attention to detail than it does to good common sense or

logic. The narrative picture it draws of love and obsession is insubstantial,

but the visual canvas it draws it on is so arresting that, even in a sequence

set in a sanitarium, the expertly tailored and perfectly color-coordinated

clothing matches the seasick-green walls. Ms. Gorris believes in dressing up

for depression.

Arriving at a sumptuous Italian resort in 1929 for a

world-championship chess tournament, Alexander Luzhin (John Turturro) is

already half-mad. A chess prodigy who has never lived comfortably in the real

world, and who is so haunted by childhood demons and so clouded by social

inferiority that he hardly knows what to do with a soup spoon, Alex is a mess.

He’s odd, exasperating, inarticulate, eccentric, practically an idiot savant,

but a genius at chess.

In a life bereft of tenderness and compassion, chess is his

refuge and only passion. Then, in the glorious Italian lake hotel, he spies

Natalia (Emily Watson), whose flighty, aristocratic mother has already promised

her to a wealthy, handsome count. For some reason that is never clear to the

viewer, Natalia loses all interest in her future husband and embarks on a

whirlwind romance with the stammering, near-catatonic chess pro. While she’s

being pressured by parental disapproval, Alexander is suddenly ungrounded by

the appearance of the sinister Valentinov (Stuart Wilson), his boyhood guardian

and chess instructor, who exploited and then deserted him for a younger and

more promising talent. While Valentinov plots to destroy his self-confidence

and reduce him to ruin, Natalia struggles to save him, substituting his passion

for chess with a passion for love. The battle for Alexander’s attention

stretches over a period of days, during which his nerves are so rattled that he

is unable to make complete sentences unless they’re about rooks and bishops.

The ensuing stress results in a tragic breakdown that renders him insane, but Natalia

refuses to leave him. In the end, the secret Luzhin defense move he’s been

working on is left for Natalia to finish the game.

While the source material represents minor Nabokov ( Lolita , it ain’t), screenwriter Peter

Berry’s often poetic dialogue and Ms. Gorris’ elegant direction combine with

beautiful cinematography and sensitive, throbbing music to keep the senses

massaged. Ms. Watson is accustomed to minimal dialogue and silences that pass

for exposition, so her deer-in-the-headlights brand of acting is something

we’ve come to expect. Mr. Turturro, rescued from the Coen brothers at last, can

always be counted on for a fearless kind of calculated weirdness that somehow

manages to masquerade as character development. I don’t know what the target

audience is for The Luzhin Defence ,

but anyone who admires these two actors will not feel cheated. It’s a very

strange film about two very strange people, played by two very strange actors

with a lot of experience surviving difficult, uncommercial and inaccessible

material with their reputations intact.

Multi-Murder, He

Wrote

For numbing, knuckle-biting suspense, the terrific French

thriller With a Friend Like Harry , by

the German director Dominik Moll, is as good as it gets. Arriving on a wave of

prizes and rave reviews from Europe, it’s been touted as a new spin on

Hitchcock, but while the source inspiration nods an obvious hat to the British

master of suspense, I think it owes more in style and subtlety to Claude

Chabrol. Mr. Moll’s understated way of rooting horror in the most innocent

situations, with all of nature conspiring against the most resolute of

principles, has the gaiety, dash and character of Mr. Chabrol’s best French

film noirs. The charm of its black morass of mystery lingers pleasantly while you’re

still shuddering.

The plot is deceptively simple: In the middle of a

blistering French heat wave, a dull, overworked schoolteacher named Michel

(Laurent Lucas) heads for a desperately needed vacation at his shambling

country house with his wife, Claire (Mathilde Seigner), and their three noisy,

irritating daughters. Stopping at a roadside gas station for refreshments in

the blistering heat, Michel runs into Harry (Sergi López), a long-forgotten

boyhood chum, in the men’s room. Harry and his sexy girlfriend Plum (Sophie

Guillemin) are heading in the opposite direction, on their way to Switzerland,

but the chance encounter at the rest stop changes their plans. Michel’s

protests fall on deaf ears; before he knows it, Harry and Plum have joined his

family holiday.

Although Harry’s sunny disposition, radiant smile, undaunted

good humor and assertive can-do attitude become cloying, he’s just what the

rest of Michel’s cranky family needs. He’s a self-anointed problem-solver, an

excellent repairman, a charming influence on the kids and a generous pal with

his bank account. When their ignition breaks down, Harry even buys them a new

air-conditioned car-no strings attached. Harry is too good to be true, and

Michel is about to find out why.

Harry turns moody with no provocation. Harry’s fond memory

of Michel’s early poems and short stories at school inspire him to revive his

old friend’s long-neglected writing talents, no matter what the cost. Harry

bristles at any outside interference that might keep his new best friend from

his work. And the way he sucks those lemons! (Think Captain Queeg after the Caine mutiny.) Harry’s mysterious

combination of cheerful camaraderie and horrifying menace will send danger

signals to anyone who remembers fresh-faced Robert Walker in Strangers on a Train . Harry just wants

to help, even if it means disposing of anyone who distracts Michel from his

writing, like a jealous, possessive lover.

What follows is terrifying, but as the body count mounts,

Mr. Moll has another plot twist up his sleeve, and it’s hard to know who is

more obsessed and disturbed-Harry or Michel. By the time it ends, Michel has

finally found the inspiration to fire up his writing career, but it’s the

audience that is left with mouths wide open.

The talent to explore the dark tensions between hidden

obsessions and the polite, civil surfaces from which they grow is what elevates

Mr. Moll to the pulse-quickening level of Hitchcock and Chabrol. Violence and

horror lurk in the brightest sunlight, and the most abnormal behavior seems

ordinary to the point of resignation. Mr. Moll is immensely cinematic, yet the

viewer is lured into his menacing game with an innocent lack of resistance.

There isn’t a single Hollywood “boo!” or special-effects trick in With a Friend Like Harry , yet this is

one of the scariest films in years. Why? Because of the way Mr. Moll trusts his

material, and his uncanny ability to show the unexpected brutality lurking

beneath the most mundane human nuances. Harry may be a monster, but he’s a sincere monster.

Mr. Moll has a jewel of a star in the charismatic Sergi

López, the Spanish actor with the broad shoulders and the smile as wide as a

proscenium who lit up last year’s marvelous French import, An Affair of Love . Mr. López is so likable and unaffected that he

gives the role of Harry twice the dimension it might otherwise have-he sweats

sincerity. The actor has described the role as an “evil angel,” yet he’s such a

captivating actor that he turns Harry into more than that. There’s also

something selective and secretive behind his smile that wins sympathy and makes

you care. Even when he’s off his hinges, you wouldn’t mind having a friend like

Harry.

The Australian Chainsaw

Massacre

While Australia takes pride in a Crowe named Russell, it

must also take the blame for a monstrosity called Chopper , a gratuitously violent and repellent freak show about Mark

(Chopper) Read, Australia’s most celebrated criminal and best-selling author.

Eric Bana, a popular comedian from Down Under who looks like a fat, hairy map

of Queensland, plays Chopper with a mouth full of steel teeth and a body

covered with tattoos and scars from knifings and bullet wounds. Mr. Bana’s

grotesque performance won the Australian equivalent of an Oscar, and the film

was a succès d’estime at Sundance,

but don’t let those dubious facts lure you into a cesspool. The real Chopper

has confessed to 19 killings, although twice that many are suspected and he was

only tried and sentenced for one. The film begins in a maximum-security prison

in 1978, where Chopper stabs a fellow inmate repeatedly while blood spurts from

every orifice like broken faucets. He, in turn, is attacked with a shiv, and

both of his ears are sliced off in graphic, detailed closeups. This is not a

film for anyone who faints at the sight of blood. Vomiting also figures

prominently.

Cut to 1986. A prostitute shoots him up with heroin, using

her legs as a tourniquet. He, in turn, beats her up and knocks her elderly

mother unconscious. Then he unzips his pants and struts around with his johnson

hanging out. (From the picture, it’s a johnson badly in need of Johnson &

Johnson.) There’s more, as each scene introduces a new round of lowlifes,

including an eight-month-pregnant junkie who scratches her belly with a loaded

shotgun and a pusher repeatedly riddled with bullets by Chopper, who then

drives his victim to the hospital screeching with laughter. We are told,

somewhat admiringly, that the more people Chopper chopped up, the more fan mail

he got. (He wrote his first best-seller behind bars, and he couldn’t even

spell.) These are poor reasons to glorify such a monster in a pointless movie

that exists for no other purpose. Those Aussies are a kinky bunch, but since

you can’t understand a word anyone says in this movie, they need subtitles. The

geeks in this sideshow drink marsala and Coke. No wonder they talk the way they

do.

Chopper , directed

by a hack named Andrew Dominik, is a kamikaze kind of movie that looks like it

was made for about $45. The ugly underworld settings, the mean-spirited point

of view, the camera that jerks and lurches all over the place, and the breezy

irreverence for civilized humanity that forms its apparent core provide ample

reasons to hate it, because it’s so hateful in the first place. Why should

anyone care about a self-styled crime commando who tortures and massacres

fellow degenerates and gets away with it every time? Chopper is the kind of

creep who used to populate James Bond flicks as comic-book villains. Now we

have to suffer through whole movies about them. Guns and knives and a total

loathing for society are treated like fun and games. Why wonder where kids get

their ideas before trying them out on their schoolmates? They get them from

irresponsible trash like this. Some things do not export well, like cheap outback

wine, anchovies, koalas without eucalyptus and movies like Chopper . Searching for John Turturro … Multi-Murder, He Wrote