“Life is random, but when you finish a puzzle you know you’ve made all the right choices.”
My wife enjoys jigsaw puzzles. I help a (very) little bit from time to time, but they aren’t really my thing. But in Marc Turtletaub’s film Puzzle, this pastime becomes a force for self-discovery and self-actualization in a woman’s life. Adapted from an Argentinian film (Rompecabezas), this is a film about a life coming together, sort of like the way a puzzle eventually is completed.
Agnes (Kelly MacDonald) is a quiet, submissive wife and mother. Her days are filled with taking care of her family and being part of her church. (Much of the film is set in Lent, with its movement from “Dust thou art” to resurrection.) She receives a jigsaw puzzle for her birthday and one day as she works around the house, she begins and finishes it. It is something she loves doing and is good at.
When she travels into the city to find more puzzles, she sees a poster about someone looking for a puzzle partner. When she answers the ad, she connects with Robert (Irrfan Khan), a dark and somewhat depressing (and depressed) man who has won a singles championship and is looking for someone to partner with in the doubles competition. When he sees how gifted Agnes is, they set a practice schedule to get ready for the National Championship.
But what of her family? She hides all this from them because she perceives they wouldn’t approve. Her husband Louie (David Denman) thinks they’re something for children. He and their sons rely on her to do everything around the house. (Although the eldest wants to cook, rather than work for Louie in an auto shop.) There are fractures in these relationships, much like the cuts in a puzzle. As we watch we wonder if Agnes’s life is being put together or coming apart. All of these issues multiply as Robert and Agnes become attracted to each other.
The obvious metaphor a viewer might expect is that this is about finding how to fit all the pieces of one’s life together to make a beautiful picture. But that isn’t what we get. Instead, this film takes things a bit deeper. We see that Agnes and Robert have different approaches to puzzling. Robert wants to organize everything. Agnes just starts in putting things in their place. At one point Robert explains that all of life is random. For him, putting a puzzle together is an escape from the chaos of life. But it doesn’t seem that Agnes sees it the same way. She doesn’t buy into his nihilism. She believes things have meaning. What she is discovering in particular is that she has meaning separate from the roles she has inhabited in her family and church.
There is also a side of Agnes that some may or may not find problematic. As I noted above, much of the film is set in Lent. Before going to meet Robert for the first time, Agnes goes to Ash Wednesday service and receives the imposition of ashes. This is a time when we are called to consider our sins as we move toward Good Friday and Easter. Yet during this time, Agnes avoids going to confession, even though she has a few things worthy of confessing. A part of her journey to independence is to step away from the guilt that often fills in the crevices of our lives. For Agnes escaping the guilt is an important part of finding her voice and her joy.
Photos by Linda Kallerus, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics