Up until its finale, and aside from the fact that it’s set in Argentina rather than France and concerns jigsaw puzzles rather than chess, Puzzle is so similar to the recent Queen to Play that one half-suspects that the two films’ directors shared notes before going into production. Like that Gallic fantasy of female self-actualization, Natalia Smirnoff’s film concerns an unhappy housewife, María (María Onetto), whose life of domestic servitude—so severe that she’s first introduced waiting on guests at her own 50th birthday party—is forever shaken by a sudden fixation with piecing together 1,000-piece puzzles, beginning with one of Egyptian queen Nefertiti that speaks to her desire for empowerment. This hobby soon leads her to a store where she finds, and then answers, a flyer for a puzzle tournament posted by Roberto (Arturo Goetz), with whom she tentatively begins preparing for a national heat that, if won, will lead her to the world championships in Germany. Such aspirations, however, are complicated by her husband Juan (Gabriel Goity), whose love for his wife is predicated on her performing her womanly duties (cooking, laundry, shopping), and who thus bristles when she begins neglecting her household responsibilities and, more cruelly, bursts into uncontrollable laughter at her initial mention of the competition.
Smirnoff’s handheld cinematography maintains ultra-close proximity to her protagonist, focusing on her face and hands to not only generate intimacy, but convey María’s gift for tactile creativity, be it in the kitchen or with puzzles, which she unconventionally puts together by literally feeling out connections. Yet if that aesthetic works in tandem with Onetto’s emotionally pent-up performance to elicit empathy, it can’t quite overshadow the obviousness of the tale’s deliverance-through-intellectual-pursuits plotting, or the thinness of its suggested María-Roberto class tensions.
At least, that is, until its third act, in which Puzzle, departing sharply from Queen to Play’s phony uplift, confronts the thorny romantic urges of its mentor-mentee characters, and the impossibility of magically reversing ingrained social hierarchies through tournament triumph. Whereas Smirnoff’s depiction of Juan as a jerk who cares for his wife, if condescendingly so, lacks complexity, her climax has the good sense to avoid simplistic fairy-tale resolutions. Offsetting some of its clunkier elements (such as wind-instrument-and-chime musical cues for María’s blossoming spirit), the film ultimately recognizes that liberating escape—or others’ acceptance of new social-order dynamics—is usually the stuff of daydreams, and that the best subjugated individuals can often hope for is simply an opportunity to carve out a small, personal nook for themselves.