Review: Puzzle (2009)

Narratives featuring older women are in short supply these days. But writer-director Natalia Smirnoff’s marvelous debut, Puzzle, arrived this weekend to cure this needless deficit.

Puzzle introduces us to Maria, subtly underplayed by Maria Onetto, a suburban housewife. The film’s first shots are handheld, following Maria as she serves canap├ęs and cooks and cleans up at a party. We learn that this is her own party, and that this is the manner in which she is celebrating her fiftieth birthday. I know that, if you are an Englishman, it is customary to buy everybody drinks. I have no idea if this practice has escalated further in Argentina, whereby not a single soul thinks to help the birthday girl out. But the failure of Maria’s husband and her children to chip in for such a once-in-a-lifetime occasion suggests very highly that there’s a problematic power balance in her marriage. Thanks in large part to Onetto’s incredible performance, which telegraphs Maria’s complexities even in the way she walks, it would be wrong to characterize Maria as completely meek. There is clearly an intelligence within her as she listens to one son attempt to embrace veganism. Yet it’s also clear that she’s chosen a life in response to her husband, an entrepreneur who runs a small business but who expects Maria to remember to replenish his favorite cheese (rather than going to the store and getting the groceries himself). The reason she’s stuck with her husband so long may be temperament. It may be that she simply hasn’t found the right angle in life.

Then Maria opens a present. It’s a jigsaw puzzle. With the family away, she starts putting the puzzle together. And the look in her eyes as she’s doing this (accompanied by musical thumps suggesting, quite deliberately, a quasi-Egyptian tone) suggests that this is one thing she’s very good at and that makes her very happy.

As someone who listens a good deal and observes much and remains frustrated by the failure of film (and books) to capture such quiet and magical moments occurring so very often in life, I can’t possibly tell you how rare and wonderful it was to see a filmmaker like Smirnoff surprise us like this. Like many of the game critics cracking vodka jokes (because, hey, nobody knew who Smirnoff was and the notes were nebulous), I had expected some goofy movie about jigsaw puzzles. But what I discovered was a deeply poignant movie about what it is to stick at some idiosyncratic interest that everybody tells you is wrong.

Maria wants more puzzles. “What’s the point of this?” asks her husband. “I like it,” responds Maria. Shouldn’t this be enough? When Maria’s husband denies her a new puzzle when they are out shopping, the moment is truly heartbreaking — especially because we know that her family doesn’t appreciate the nuances of her cooking. But when Maria finds a store that specializes in nothing but puzzles, the look of bliss on her face just killed me. Especially when she sees a 20,000 piece puzzle. One might argue that Maria is committing a form of adultery with her puzzles (and, as we see very subtly later, there is a sexual charge Maria gets from these puzzles). As she constructs more puzzles, she has to hide the puzzle-in-progress on a board underneath the couch. But surely Maria’s husband (who so upset me that, even in writing this quick essay, I cannot compel myself to name him) can spare a few minutes to encourage her hobby in late bloom.

But Maria is undaunted. She answers an ad reading “Seeking Companion for Puzzle.” But the way she answers it is complicated. For the man on the other end has an email address. And she has never touched a computer. Is it Smirnoff’s suggestion that giving into a quirky passion like puzzles is almost a pre-Internet idea that we can no longer talk about? Or is this a smart dramatic device that communicates just how much Maria has not been allowed to learn during her marriage? Whatever the case, the scene in which Maria is patiently trying to comprehend email as another woman tries to help her is expressed as a valiant struggle to move forward. Maria may be slow and quiet, but her passion will find fruition.

I’ve suggested that this film plays like a low-key version of Madame Bovary, with a sexual tension contained within Maria’s pursuit of the puzzle. What’s admirable about Smirnoff’s direction is the way she broaches this issue without pushing it too fast to the surface. The man that Maria meets, who does indeed want to take Maria to a puzzle championship in Germany, does make more than a few passes at her. But for Maria, it is the puzzle interest first and foremost that she’s lying to her family about. And when they do not entirely respect this singular pursuit, Maria’s decisions become more justifiable. In a late moment in the film, she orders the family to help her clean out a spare room. Again, it does seem the least that they can do. And in this act of cleaning, the family begins to dance in a rather spontaneous way after finding an item. So Smirnoff’s optimistic suggestion is that the fun moments in life often happen when you help those who are closest to you with their interests, however crazy or ordinary they may seem. The incurious counterpoint is a relationship founded on another person’s will.

Like any art investigating a subculture (and there’s certainly one here, complete with specific puzzle building techniques and some modest intensity), Puzzle reveals that there’s more to the ordinary if you know where to look and if you stick it out. As someone who has seen many of his friends and acquaintances sacrifice their voices and their spirits for crass materialistic gain, I’m grateful to this film for demonstrating that it’s never too late for anyone.