Home > Reviews > THE LUZHIN DEFENCE – Alexandre Desplat

THE LUZHIN DEFENCE – Alexandre Desplat

luzhindefenceOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

What’s the sound of a French composer falling off a tall building? Desplat. I’m opening this review with a joke because I’ll wager that most of you have never heard of Alexandre Desplat, the French-born composer of The Luzhin Defence. Before I saw this film and heard this album, I knew his name, and could I list a few of his previous films (Innocent Lies, A Self Made Hero, Love Etc.), but nothing beyond that. Even now, biographical details about Desplat’s life are sketchy – I don’t even know how old he is – but I do know this: he is a composer of considerable talent.

The Luzhin Defence, based on Vladimir Nabokov’s novel and directed by Marleen Gorris, is a romantic drama set in Italy, circa 1930. It stars John Turturro as Alexander Luzhin, a shy, introverted, socially awkward man who also happens to be one of the most brilliant grand masters of his day – a kind of David Helfgott of the chess world. He arrives on the shores of Lake Como to play in the most important tournament of his life, but instead finds his world thrown into chaos when he unexpectedly falls madly in love with beautiful Russian socialite Natalia Kotkov (Emily Watson), who is staying at the same hotel. Much to the horror of Natalia’s snobbish mother (Geraldine James), Luzhin’s affections are returned, and the two plan to marry once the chess tournament is over. But danger lurks over the horizon with appearance of Valentinov (Stuart Wilson), a shadowy figure from the past whose very presence at the tournament is enough to drive Luzhin’s already fragile sanity even closer to the edge.

Desplat’s music is very, very classical. Quiet, romantic, but just a little bit mysterious in tone, it builds upon and weaves around its three core themes, creating a score which is attractive, engaging, dramatically appropriate, and intelligently structured. The main title track, ‘The Luzhin Defence’ is based around a delicate piano melody which is augmented and affirmed by the strings of the London Symphony Orchestra, whose superb performances grace each subsequent cue, especially ‘Alexander and Natalia’ and the conclusive ‘Checkmate’. The ‘Love Theme’ for Alexander and Natalia (recapitulated in ‘Natalia’s Eyes’) is graceful and dream-like, built upon a bed strings and backed by a harp which come at you, wave upon glorious wave.

The third theme is the motif for “the madness of chess”, and provides the score’s darkest moments. Frantic, scratchier string work and more ragged piano performances typify Luzhin’s obsession with the game, especially in cues such as ‘Memories of Russia’, the dissonant ‘The Dark Side of Chess’ and ‘I Need A Defence’, the operatic and disconcerting ‘Leaving Childhood’, and the slightly more tonal but equally unnerving ‘Valentinov’, in which all the musical chaos surrounding Luzhin’s insanity finally makes sense.

Other cues of note include ‘The Arrival’, a sprightly variation on the main theme which seeks to illustrate the hustle and bustle of the first class hotel and its socially resplendent guests; an old-time dance piece for string quartet and piano in ‘Dancing on the Lake’, the tragedy-laden finale in ‘The Glass King’, and the two performances of Dmitri Shostakovich’s bombastic, triumphant, opulent waltz from the Jazz Suite No.2, re-recorded in full stereo sound by Paul Bateman and the City of Prague Philharmonic especially for inclusion in the film. The waltz is a perfect example of how to use music from the classical repertoire effectively. It underscores a montage sequence that cuts backwards and forwards between a scene of Luzhin playing brilliant chess in quick fire fashion, and a scene of Alexander and Natalia making love for the first time. The fiery tempo of the waltz, combined with the comparative pyrotechnics on-screen, cleverly makes parallels between the two acts, at least in Luzhin’s mind. He makes love, and he plays brilliant chess… cause and effect in operation!

At the time of writing, the film of The Luzhin Defence has only played in art-house cinemas in the UK, and has not yet been released in the United States. Similarly, Silva’s score album has only seen the light of day on this side of the pond, so it is entirely possible that both film and score may bypass readers who have not been fortunate enough to stumble across them, either in a local cinema or in a record store. Alexandre Desplat, on this evidence, is a composer with a future, and once his achievements acknowledged, we might finally be able to dispense with onomatopoeic references that currently dominate most of the discussions about this talented, undiscovered Frenchman.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • The Luzhin Defence (3:07)
  • Love Theme (2:18)
  • The Arrival (1:26)
  • Memories of Russia (5:23)
  • Dancing on the Lake (2:25)
  • Alexander and Natalia (2:29)
  • The Dark Side of Chess (3:44)
  • The Red Dress (2:52)
  • Waltz No.2 from Jazz Suite No.2 (written by Dmitri Shostakovich, conducted by Paul Bateman) (3:52)
  • Leaving Childhood (4:44)
  • Luzhin Dreams (3:48)
  • I Need A Defence (3:13)
  • Natalia’s Eyes (3:23)
  • Valentinov (1:46)
  • The Glass King (4:18)
  • Checkmate (3:28)
  • Waltz No.2 from Jazz Suite No.2 (written by Dmitri Shostakovich, conducted by Paul Bateman) (3:52)

Running Time: 56 minutes 16 seconds

Silva Screen FILMCD-345 (2000)

Music composed and conducted by Alexandre Desplat. Performed by The London Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations by Alexandre Desplat. Featured musical soloists Gordon Nikolitch, Brin Lewis, Catherine Edwards, Simon Chamberlain and John Alley. Recorded and mixed by John L. Timperley. Edited by James Fitzpatrick. Album produced by Alexandre Desplat.

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