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Cinema has lagged far behind literature in examining sexuality. Restricted to reproducing the physical world, filmmakers are denied access to the workings of the mind, the nexus of erotic desire. Sex in Hollywood pictures rarely consists of more than heavy breathing, a few flashes of breasts and buttocks, and choreographed thumping and bumping beneath discreetly draped sheets. Hard-core sexual activity in porno movies resembles athletic competition. In neither case are we allowed insight into what the participants are thinking and feeling—or even if they possess the capacity for thought or emotion.

Only a handful of films—none that come to mind were produced in this country—have managed to capture some sense of the physiopsychology of sexual passion. In a series of wordless, poetic images, Jean Genet’s short Un Chant d’Amour (1950) palpably conveys the homoerotic longings of men behind bars. Bibi Andersson’s extended monologue about a beachside orgy in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) remains, as critic Pauline Kael observed, “one of the rare truly erotic sequences in movie history.” Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972) explores the emotional aftershocks of an affair begun as a purely physical relationship—a theme developed more profoundly in Frédéric Fonteyne’s An Affair of Love (1999). To my mind, no filmmaker has yet surpassed the erotic power of the sequence from Jean Vigo’s 1934 masterpiece, L’Atalante, in which a young husband and wife, separated after a quarrel, fantasize about each other while masturbating. Using lap dissolves overlaid by grids of shadows, Vigo expresses with startling precision how the mind and body fuse in craving carnal fulfillment.

Director Wayne Wang deserves credit for attempting to deal seriously with sexual experience in The Center of the World. Heedless of financial risk—conservative theater and video-rental chains are unlikely to offer this uncommonly explicit American movie in unexpurgated form—Wang, like Bertolucci and Fonteyne, charts the dynamics of a liaison initiated on a strictly sexual basis. Unfortunately, after setting his plot in motion, the director can’t quite figure out what to do with it.

The Center of the World’s 20-ish protagonists meet in a Los Angeles coffee shop. Richard (Peter Sarsgaard) is an immature, reclusive computer engineer about to become a dot-com millionaire. He relates to the world through a bank of monitors, one of which is linked to a porno Web site. Florence (Molly Parker), an unflappable drummer in a punk band, supplements her income by stripping at a men’s bar called Pandora’s Box. Richard visits the club and pays Florence to perform a look-but-don’t-touch lap dance. Impulsively, he offers her $10,000 to join him for a weekend in Las Vegas. Despite her protests that she doesn’t have sex for money, she agrees after dictating her conditions: no mouth kissing, no expression of emotions, no penetration, separate rooms, and contact limited to the hours between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.

Ensconced in Las Vegas’ fantasy world, Richard deludes himself into believing that Florence has accompanied him by choice rather than as part of a business deal. The first night, seductively costumed, she arrives at his room on schedule and performs for him as arranged. Touched by Richard’s naive vulnerability and excited by the power she wields over him, Florence subsequently bends, then breaks, her own rules. These two lonely people attempt to relate on a more authentic, nonmercantile level but are unable to break free of their negotiated roles to forge a true connection.

Appropriating an idea that Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan addressed with more subtlety in Family Viewing and Speaking Parts, Wang and his three co-writers, including novelist Paul Auster, postulate that contemporary sexuality has been undermined by technology and commercialized voyeurism. Early on, Richard asserts his belief that the Internet is the center of the world. Florence disagrees, insisting that the world centers around, in her words, “the cunt.” Both, of course, are wrong, but little remains for Wang to accomplish in the remainder of his film beyond illustrating the inadequacy and incompatibility of their assumptions. The introduction of a pair of secondary characters—Florence’s friend Jerri (Carla Gugino), a casino croupier, and Richard’s college classmate and business partner, Brian (Balthazar Getty)—largely serves to stretch to feature length a theme that would have worked better as the subject of a shorter film.

Literally and emotionally stripped naked, scruffy, boyish Sarsgaard and lithe, freckled Parker contribute daring performances, taking risks that few other actors would entertain. Both are assigned lengthy autoerotic scenes, symbolic of their characters’ psychological isolation, that must have been as excruciating to perform as they are to witness. The narrow, thesis-bound dimensions of Wang’s protagonists are reinforced by his camera’s claustrophobic confinement to Richard’s hotel room, photographed by cinematographer Mauro Fiore on digital video in brackish sepia tones.

The movie ends with an ambiguous replay of the Pandora’s Box lap-dance sequence. Is this scene a projection of Richard’s hopeless, ongoing obsession with Florence? A suggestion that the pair can still develop a deeper relationship? Or is it merely Wang’s tacit, tail-chasing admission that he can’t come up with a way to resolve a story that has exhausted its options?

Unlike Wang’s low-budget, transgressive movie, Marleen Gorris’ The Luzhin Defence is an upscale prestige film in the Merchant-Ivory tradition: an opulently produced adaptation of a literary classic (Vladimir Nabokov’s The Defense) featuring an international cast and shot in picturesque European locations. Although its handsome settings and elegant costumes are consistently eye-catching, Gorris’ revamping of Nabokov’s narrative sentimentalizes and, ultimately, betrays the author’s dark vision.

Thirty-four years elapsed between the initial appearance of Nabokov’s third novel—published as Zashchita Luzhina in 1930 by a Russian-émigré press in Berlin—and the English-language translation, which arrived in the wake of Lolita and Pale Fire. The Defense is a bleak, Gogolesque tale about Alexander Luzhin, a troubled child who is an object of concern for his squabbling parents and of mockery for his contemptuous schoolmates. (The boy’s inability to verbalize his feelings and his distaste for physical contact suggest that he suffers from autism.) Young Luzhin finds an escape from his wretched isolation in chess, a game that imposes a coherent pattern on his otherwise unfathomable existence. He emerges as a prodigy and, managed by the opportunistic Valentinov, who promotes him as a freaklike attraction, Luzhin abandons his education and becomes a grandmaster of the game.

At 30, orphaned, deserted by Valentinov, and so obsessed by chess that he retains only a tenuous connection with reality, Luzhin attends a championship tournament at a German resort, where he meets and falls in love with tenderhearted Natalia, the 25-year-old daughter of an aristocratic Russian-émigré family. Drawn by Luzhin’s innocence, eccentricity, and emotional need, she accepts his marriage proposal against her parents’ warnings that he’s a nutcase. After he suffers a nervous breakdown in the midst of an exhausting chess match, Luzhin is advised by doctors that he must abandon the stressful game in order to regain his sanity. Despite Natalia’s efforts to restrain him, Luzhin can’t find his bearings in a world devoid of chess pieces and checkered boards. In a fit of delirium, he leaps out of an apartment window.

Peter Berry’s screenplay, set in 1929 at an Italian spa, complicates Nabokov’s linear storyline by intercutting scenes from Luzhin’s adult life with flashbacks to his childhood. (This device slows the narrative’s pace but solves the problem of dealing with the novel’s daring 16-year forward leap at the end of Chapter 4.) Berry’s other inventions are less felicitous. A sequence juxtaposing Luzhin at a chess competition with his tremulous sexual initiation by Natalia vulgarly oversimplifies his existential dilemma. And Berry’s transformation of the crass Valentinov into a Mephistophelean figure bent on destroying Luzhin blunts Nabokov’s point that, from the moment of his birth, his unbalanced protagonist can’t evade his doom.

The Luzhin Defence’s failure was similarly predestined by Gorris’ grotesque choice of John Turturro as Luzhin. His heavy-handed performance has been inexplicably praised in some circles, probably because he never stops reminding us that he’s acting. (A waggish friend of mine refers to him as the Rod Steiger of our era.) Turturro’s notion of projecting derangement consists of popping and rolling his eyes like a silent-screen heroine about to be beheaded by a sawmill blade. To convey pathos, he affects a Chaplinesque shuffle—complete with cane. Turturro’s hammy Luzhin is so blatantly bonkers that one can’t imagine why the presumably sane Natalia would exchange more than a few sentences with him before seeking the protection of her parents.

Initially, Emily Watson’s soft-spoken but steadfast Natalia, a more prominent character than in the novel, is appealing. Her quiet rebelliousness makes plausible her choice of a scruffy, disoriented chess player over the conventionally dashing French aristocrat favored by her mother. But as the film progresses, Watson’s limited repertoire of sensitive expressions—compassionate glances and simpering little smiles—becomes tiresome, especially during the bedroom scene, in which she gamely endures Luzhin’s virginal fumblings like a sacrificial lamb lying passively on an altar.

Even though one might question certain small details—such as the cast’s refusal to attempt Russian accents—there’s no denying Gorris’ mastery in mounting this physically impressive, visually striking production. But the preposterously affirmative ending she’s appended to Nabokov’s uncompromisingly grim tale, in which Natalia snatches triumph from the jaws of tragedy, negates the filmmaker’s considerable achievement—and is about as uplifting as a happy face spray-painted on a skull. CP