You might think the storyline from the Hollywood film Puzzle reads something like this: “Desperate housewife breaks free from patriarchal imprisonment.” If you do, throw your “Puzzle” pieces back in the box, shake it and start over.
I predict director Marc Turtletaub’s latest movie Puzzle will be a giant sleeper movie if audiences show up. Generally, Hollywood movies seem like their on the way out as programming on tv and private-label digital platforms like Amazon or Netflix continue to offer better storytelling. This may be true except that movies like Puzzle keep me spending money at the cinema box office.
Why? Puzzle is more than the sum of its interlocking pieces. It’s an exposè on life that takes us well beyond the obvious and worn stereotype of a desperate housewife shackled in domestic prison at the expense of freedom and self-knowledge. Much like a puzzle piece that neatly snaps into place, this movie presents a much broader and more liberating conversation about the individual as self and the role of social expectations.
For example, when we cheer for Agnes – the movie’s main character who has spent her entire life in service to men – we witness the parallel influence that her coming of self has on the equally messy character evolution of the men in her life. It’s easy to see that each character needs to follow their own path and figure out how best to configure their own puzzle pieces.
Agnes reminds us of this when she and Robert compete for the championship title and she admits that color matching pieces won’t help you to win; you need to follow your own unique path to self truth.
Maybe all this sounds too lofty for this 2009 remake of Rompecabezas by Argentinean writer/director Natalia Smirnoff, but it’s not in light of the many divisive narratives surrounding women and men. We continue on most fronts to pit male and female gender power against each other, and even women against other women.
Skin color, ideology, religion and other story constructs create deep canyons because we don’t focus on what unites us. I know and admit that when I started watching Puzzle, my first instinct was to loathe Agnes’ weakness until I began to understand her backstory. Sound familiar?
Like any well-written screenplay, Puzzle moves us gracefully beyond assumptions and expectations. It probes what we should expect from each other in marriage and as parents.
What does Agnes owe her husband, and what should her husband expect his kids to do with the money he gives them?
Puzzle also plays with stereotypical notions connecting sexuality to certain career paths and asks what expectations and behaviors we attach to gender. Agnes’ two sons (Ziggy and Gabe) are a great case in point. Ziggy admires what Agnes does in the kitchen and wants to be a chef, while Gabe is interested in philosophy and going on to college.
But the second and younger son (played by Austin Abrams) is intellectually blind to his mother’s situation and thinks she’s not very smart. It’s a funny twist and one not lost on the audience and Robert, Agnes’ love-interest. Robert notices Gabe misspells college with an “a” instead of a “e”.
What I also love is that when the movie ends, the audience isn’t really left with clear-cut answers. There is an overwhelming sense that we just need to give in to the chaos of life. And when we do, only then do we start to truly live.
Without giving the plot away, I’d love to share three great WomanScape-worthy questions from this movie. The first and most obvious question considers the journey of Agnes (perfectly-cast actress, Kelly Macdonald) who takes her first tentative steps heading into the big city of New York City to purchase a new puzzle. She senses she has a savant-like ability to complete puzzles in record time and quickly meets Robert (Bollywood actor and personal favorite, Irrfan Khan).
He is intellectual and inventive, but obsessed with the human condition and natural disasters. Agnes learns to trust his quirky but brilliant mind, and most importantly to like herself when she’s with him. This drives a daring but freeing relationship that does two things: it helps Robert to start creating again and to trust that life can have meaning; and, it helps Agnes to realize her self-worth is not defined by someone else.
The second interesting reflection from Puzzle is how much women live between the lines. We find freedom in different ways and don’t fit neatly into one stereotypical silo. Each of us can weigh the role of fate, ambition and love in shaping our life path, but the right choice is more about having the freedom to see and decide for ourselves.
If you believe in the randomness of life, then our ability to exercise free will is our truest path to life. This truth comes to life for Agnes, whose devotion to the Catholic church during the Easter season has been one of blind following instead of conscious decision-making.
Agnes transformation begins when she drops a plate and can’t find the broken piece until the very end of the movie. This breaking of patterns carries into all facets of her life, from the buzzing alarm clock each morning to the dinner table or buying her husband’s favorite cheese. Only when Agnes understands what the root of her suffering has been is she able to take steps to alleviate it.
This last and third Puzzle piece falls into place when Robert (her lover), not Lonnie (her husband) says that the root of all suffering is the desire not to suffer. Robert feels safe when he can relegate suffering to the tv and out of his home. Agnes, on the other hand, knows she has suffered long enough and decides to stop trying to control it. This letting go frees her and helps each of us to embrace the role of suffering in what we can and cannot control.
It’s in our human nature to want to organize the pieces of our life. The beauty of Puzzle is the inspiring challenges that Agnes navigates as she learns to take a chance on herself. She grows from her experiences and learns to trust in herself. This is a unique approach that each of us can take – something you see over and over again on WomanScape as we continue to assemble stories of women tackling a myriad of puzzles in life.