The marvelous Argentinean actor María Onetto is adept at playing women whose facades are on the verge of crumbling in ways evident to the audience, even if the characters around them don’t notice. Puzzle, the feature debut of writer-director Natalia Smirnoff, isn’t as ambitious, confounding, or excellent as the last film in which Onetto appeared on U.S. screens, Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman. But it does offer another showcase for Onetto to have what’s essentially an unnoticed breakdown amid an affectionate but oblivious family.
In the opening sequence, Onetto’s meek housewife is frantically overseeing a party at her house, cooking, serving, and tamping down her obvious exhaustion to make small talk with whoever intercepts her. As her husband (Gabriel Goity) talks business and makes toasts with the men, while her college-aged sons discuss their future plans with relatives, Onetto ferries a lavish feast from the kitchen, culminating with a cake whose candles she blows out herself—the celebration is for her, to mark her 50th birthday. In the aftermath, she discovers that one of the presents left for her is a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle featuring a picture of Nefertiti. It pulls her in; her speed in assembling it reveals a previously undiscovered skill. That leads her to an ad posted by a genteel man (Arturo Goetz) searching for a partner for puzzle competitions.
Putting together a jigsaw puzzle, even in a competitive context, isn’t the most movie-friendly activity, and Puzzle wisely focuses the majority of its attention on the changes Onetto’s talent brings about in her life rather than on the assembling itself. Her blossoming is a subtle thing, coming through in the changes in her dress, in smiles that don’t drop off her face as soon as she’s out of the room, and in her increasing unwillingness to be taken for granted or chided by her spouse and children. The men in her home can be insensitive, but Puzzle doesn’t demonize them, instead demonstrating how Onetto’s unhappiness is at least as much due to her voluntarily giving them everything, to an extent they don’t realize or reciprocate. Though the film reaches a seemingly artificial either/or scenario with regard to the competitive puzzling, its conclusion is pleasing and not at all pat, a portrait of a woman who’s learned she deserves to keep some things for herself.