Gorgeous, spirited, enigmatic, avant-garde writer-director Hans Richter’s almost entirely speechless 8 x 8: A Chess Sonata in Eight Movements takes its title from the grid of a chessboard. Richter’s sophisticated air, celebrity stars (Jean Arp, Paul Bowles, Alexander Calder, Jean Cocteau, Peggy Guggenheim, Man Ray, etc.), dazzling down-the-rabbit-hole enchantment, bag of tricks (reverse motion, jump-cuts, time-lapse photography, etc.): all these contribute to an exhilarating result.
Chess is a board game based on war, territorial gain, the divestiture of an opponent’s claim to power. Richter’s description is more upbeat: “a game of chance and accidents, kings and pawns, retreats and successes—in short, the thousand and one combinations of life.” Richter has described the film as being “half Freud, half Lewis Carroll.”
The first episode is a period piece depicting royal intrigue in the woods. It includes a lady’s tripped-up, trapped bare foot: one of numerous erotic images. In another, Calder constructs a mobile and uses his breath to blow it into life. Here, also, is randomness—of the found objects, various movements resulting from disparate shapes and weights, etc. A woman’s kiss elsewhere turns a royal doll into a human beloved, but, unwilling to cede any power, the woman submits the man’s head and neck to a succession of hats (including a large one with a chessboard design) and ties, preferring to wear the crown herself, and converts the man into a puppet on a string. In perhaps the most wonderful episode, an adventure in “the fortunes of love,” Max Ernst pursues another chess piece, wife Dorothea Tanning,* throughout Lower Manhattan—initially, in unexpected black and white.
A clock turns counterclockwise, erasing its numerical indicators. The film’s irresolution suggests that life is a chess game in endless play.
* As of this writing, Tanning is still with us. In two months the painter, sculptor, poet, printmaker, and theatrical set and costume designer will be 98 years old. Ernst had also been married to Guggenheim.