“Life is messy. It does not make any goddamn sense. Sorry to break the news to you. Life is just random.”
How would this come down on a woman (Agnes Mata, Kelly Macdonald) who lives each moment by routine? There are days marked for grocery shopping, for church, and for everything else. Life runs by the manual. So deep is the routine that it’s she who wakes the alarm clock.
She plans her own birthday party, cooks, cleans, decorates, bakes, even carries the cake by herself to the table, and asks her husband if he is having fun. She goes after the same chores everyday without fail; it’s like her limbs are programmed to go about the same thing, day after day after day. There are no misses, no surprises, nothing that may remotely upset the plan.
One of her birthday gifts is an iPhone. Her son excitedly wants to set it up for her. “There are apps for everything Mom. You can look up anything, recipes, church stuff, the weather.”
“I have a radio and a window; I would know when it will rain”.
That sums up her world.
There are brewing discontents in the family, but they are not about her, neither caused by her, nor intended for her. She is like one constant, the spirit of care and stability for the entire family that never goes wrong. But then there is nothing the family does specifically for her either. Her son’s essay for college application narrates their confined lives, and mentions with all honesty that his mother “doesn’t think of anything other than serving the men in her life”.
Until another gift, the jigsaw puzzle from an aunt who may have remembered her childhood fancies walks back into her life. This is, that one seemingly innocuous event in her life that will significantly alter its course.
On an impulse, she travels to New York to buy another puzzle for herself. She tells the ticket collector quite factually that there would not be another time when he informs it’s cheaper to buy the ticket at the station before boarding.
That train ride leads her to a professional puzzle solver (Robert, Irrfan Khan) a successful, wealthy man, who is frantically looking for a partner to participate in a jigsaw puzzle competition.
He is brilliant and intimidating, checks her ability, to realise quickly that she is a natural. He is taken aback by her puzzle solving which unlike her rule abiding life, does not follow the professional rubrics of the game.
“You are godsend. It was meant to be.”
Although she may have come to accept that for others, puzzles are childish hobby of bored people, when Robert places puzzle solving in perspective, “it’s a way to control the chaos. You go about the menial task because your mind is moving too fast”, here is finally a person who connects to her, who lends the perfectly matching words to her thoughts, understands precisely the contentment in finishing a puzzle, in getting all the pieces right.
“There is nothing we can do to control anything. But when you complete a puzzle, when you finish it, you know you have made all the right choices. No matter how many wrong pieces you tried to fit into wrong places, but at the end everything makes one perfect picture.”
Their love is instantaneous. Its as if this was that missing piece of her life, a piece that not only does not fit in, but blows apart all the other pieces.
In her life so far, nobody has seen her as funny and beautiful and strange. Her humour is wasted on a community who lead equally mundane, scripted, scriptured, unadventurous lives. “Pack our sins into neat monthly portions” she humours as the church schedules confessions to once a month for lack of people wanting to confess. Does not even get a chuckle from the others.
In her seemingly settled life, her husband Louie, following typical gender roles, values her immensely as she cares for the family, she keeps everything running. Unwittingly he says once “someone always uses you”. Its accepted that a married woman’s life can be as good as this. In the daily rituals and routines, there is care for each other. Everyone is playing an expected role. The father brings the money, the boys, one who got good grades is aspiring for college, and the other one is pushed by the dad to help him in his garage as a mechanic, which the boy totally abhors.
She tells him “am finally doing something on my own. Am not asking you. Am telling you. You can support me or not. I will do it either way.”
As she travels to practice and begins to navigate beyond her immediate surroundings, she also begins to assert, to ask, to express. It rattles the accepted hierarchy in the family. As she recognises her passion for puzzle solving and what it means to be supported, she finds out about culinary schools for their son to back his calling.
The villain is not the husband, nor the family or the society, though they play their prescribed roles when it comes to how they treat women, the villain really is, not going after your dream, losing one’s self completely in caring for others.
Rhetorical, pretentious conversations make her uncomfortable. She asks basic, fundamental questions. It delights the heart to hear her simple, primal, un-skirted questions throughout the film. There is truth in her lies, and there is truth in her truth. When Louie asks her if she is having an affair, she tells him what it feels like to her.
But make no mistake, it’s the Puzzle that drives her. Their relationship tangos beautifully with a common purpose within a defined time. When they reach that point after having won the competition, they aspire for the future differently. For Robert it is going from one level of competitiveness to the next with a partner who fits perfectly. He loves the challenge. But for her, sitting down to solve a jigsaw puzzle is her intimate comfort, in happiness or sorrow. Puzzle is intrinsic to both of them but in different ways. She would not be tied to another’s expectations again.
A specific mention of Irrfan, an actor who personified the non-binary in his roles. He is often the space between love and hate, between courtship and marriage, between friend and lover, between good and evil. Irrfan disregarded the black and white to demystify the grey, sanctifying its existence. This film is a celebration of the “different and the weird.”
“To getting all the wrong pieces right.”