10 great puzzle films

Films that make us put the pieces together.

The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)

“What’s in the box?” wails Brad Pitt’s panicked detective to Kevin Spacey’s implacable serial killer at the end of David Fincher’s pitch-black thriller Se7en (1995). Soon enough Pitt, and the audience, learn the horrific truth about Spacey’s special delivery. It’s testament to the enduring power of mysteries – the who-, why- and how-dunnits – that we always need to know, no matter how awful the solution might be. And those that can still pull one over on game and experienced armchair sleuths – Rian Johnson’s Knives Out (2019) and its upcoming sequel are fine recent examples – are valuable indeed.

Of course, those are just one type of ‘puzzle’ movie. Some don’t so much contain a riddle to solve as much as the film itself is constructed as an enigma that defies easy answers, or any definite answer at all. This could be the interlocking double timeframes of Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), which tries to replicate its amnesiac protagonist’s short-term memory lapses. Or the playful narrative diversions and roundelay of shifting identities in certain Jacques Rivette films.

Peter Greenaway’s breakthrough feature, The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982), appeared 40 years ago and immediately put its own deft, acerbic headspin on British period films. It tells of the titular, entitled 17th-century draughtsman hired to make 12 drawings of a landowner’s country estate by his wife. In return, and in addition to his fee, she will satisfy his pleasures. But that’s only the start of a series of covert transactions, concealed vantage points and hidden motivations to be teased out by the viewer from Greenaway’s precise tableaux.

The director would go on to make even more oblique, enigmatic work (often structured around a particular key or code), one of which features below in a selection of cinema’s most beautifully, often hypnotically, baffling brainteasers.

Rashomon (1950)

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Rashomon (1950)

A violent bandit. A violated bride. A slain samurai. A woodcutter witness. Four accounts of a rape and murder in the forest, each from a different character’s perspective (the samurai’s ghost recounts his), each contradicting the others. Akira Kurosawa’s 12th feature became his international calling card, winning the Venice Film Festival, an honorary Oscar and announcing Japanese cinema’s arrival on the global cinematic stage.

Purists might argue that Kurosawa’s kinetic, commercially minded work would always elicit wider appeal than more contemplative contemporaries like Yasujiro Ozu or Kenji Mizoguchi. But Rashomon’s adroit, adult probing of the subjectivity of ‘truth’ gave audiences much to puzzle over, while enthralling them with Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura’s powerhouse performances and the director’s visceral filmmaking. The title has since itself become a term for conflicting reports and a frequent pop culture reference. Witness The Simpsons. Marge: “Come on, Homer, Japan will be fun. You liked Rashomon.” Homer: “That’s not how I remember it…”

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

Director: Alain Resnais

Last Year at Marienbad (1961)

If you had to design the epitome of arthouse cinema, Alain Resnais’ elegant, esoteric conundrum might be its blueprint: a stately chateau location with geometric garden foliage, gnomic dialogue, much of it spoken in deadpan voiceover or by poker-faced, unnamed characters. The narrative as such revolves around ‘the Man’ who claims that he and ‘the Woman’ met and fell in love a year prior in Marienbad, though she doesn’t recall this ever happening, and her spouse, ‘the Husband’, may not even be who he claims. Take that, Robert McKee and Screenwriting 101 gurus!

Easy, then, to satirise such existential ambitions, but that, fittingly, doesn’t tell Marienbad’s real story: how Resnais and writer Alain Robbe-Grillet are more preoccupied with (and masters of) tone and mood, or exploring the haunting, unreliable power of memory. Neither do prosaic summaries evoke its genuine pleasures, such as Sacha Vierny’s exquisite monochrome imagery, nor its experimental, modernist construct. An eerie enigma in which to lose yourself.

Blowup (1966)

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni

Blowup (1966)

David Hemmings’ arrogant young photographer seems able to define the look of swinging London and all its fashionable temptations. His wandering eye, though, is soon in for a shock. After he takes shots of a couple canoodling in a park, the woman involved urgently demands the film back. His subsequent development of the photos reveals that he may have inadvertently snapped a gunman in the bushes and a murder conspiracy – something the discovery, then disappearance of a body appears to confirm. But is that what his images really show?

Perhaps it took an outsider, Italian auteur Michelangelo Antonioni, to reveal the anxiety and ennui underpinning the 1960s original ‘Cool Britannia’ era. Antonioni defrocks the glamour and defuses the thriller at Blowup’s cold, lonely heart. Hemmings’ passion for and understanding of his art ultimately vanishes in increasingly magnified, and thus, abstract, pictures; an inconclusive mystery for an unresolvable spiritual malaise.

Out 1 (1971)

Director: Jacques Rivette

Out 1 (1971)

Many fans of the French New Wave’s Jacques Rivette have long delighted in the Alice in Wonderland-like rabbit holes of his most popular confection, 1974’s Celine and Julie Go Boating. Fewer have, until recent times, been able, or brave enough, to plunge down into his earlier magnum opus: a 13-hour-long, circuitous, self-reflexive, multi-part extravaganza taking in rival theatre groups, con artists and a putative secret society, starring the era’s great French actors, including Jean-Pierre Léaud, Juliet Berto and Michael Lonsdale.

So, what is Out 1? A woozy, freewheeling, generational statement on the stymied post-’68 revolution, conceptualising notions of performance, ‘playing’ and being? Certainly it’s an endurance test during the groups’ arduous improv sessions. Elsewhere it’s like grappling with a secret language, coded with references to Aeschylus, Balzac and Lewis Carroll. The sense of achievement in simply getting through the whole exhilarating, exasperating shebang is undeniable. Understanding it? That might take more than another 13 hours…

The Hourglass Sanatorium (1973)

Director: Wojciech Has

The Hourglass Sanatorium (1973)

It’s ironic that many movies about dreams are as oneiric as fantasising about an ocean voyage by listening to the shipping forecast (hello, Inception). That’s not an accusation to be levelled at Wojciech Has’s phantasmagorical shapeshifter. When Józef arrives by decrepit train to the sanatorium where his ailing father resides, he finds the clocks reset so that time, reality and fantasy slip and merge. He’s plunged into a picaresque series of encounters from history and his own past: the labyrinthine institution and its grounds now transformed into jungles and carnivals, its inhabitants errant soldiers, seductive temptresses or clockwork automatons.

Has’s adaptation of Bruno Schulz’s short stories are a potent political allegory for an ailing, Iron Curtain-annexed Poland, but the powerful symbolism and imposing set designs encompass a wider, psychological space (and surely influenced numerous filmmakers, including David Lynch and Terry Gilliam). Has’s elliptical secrets repay, even demand, multiple viewings.

F for Fake (1973)

Director: Orson Welles

F for Fake (1973)

Orson Welles, legendary filmmaker, show boater and sometime magician allows his multiple talents free rein in this double-dealing essay film that, he blithely announces upfront, “is about trickery… fraud… lies”. Ostensibly setting up a documentary on art forger Elmyr de Hory and his equally slippery biographer Clifford Irving, what Welles pulls out of his large black hat is a series of meditations on cinema, the authenticity of art, even his own film’s ‘Making of’.

Though approaching 60-years-old upon F for Fake’s release, Welles juggles multiple storylines and rapid-fire editing with the vigour and enthusiasm of a New Hollywood whippersnapper. It’s at once the most serious and playful deconstructions of his chosen medium, his own life and work. Fittingly, in his final flourish, he reminds us that initially he promised, for an hour, to tell only the truth. “That hour, ladies and gentlemen, is over,” grins cinema’s greatest self-confessed charlatan. “For the past 17 minutes, I’ve been lying my head off.”

Drowning by Numbers (1988)

Director: Peter Greenaway

Drowning by Numbers (1988)

Count on Peter Greenaway to up the ante. After The Draughtsman’s Contract his subsequent run of 1980s films make that film look as cryptic as a Merchant Ivory costume drama. And this, his fifth feature, is arguably his most intricate, playful work of all.

Three generations of women, all named Cissie Colpitts, drown their spouses and get away with murder by flattering the sexually infatuated local coroner Madgett to turn a blind eye. But what, you may ask, does that have to do with the Colpitts indulging Madgett’s young son, Smut, in his obsession with archaic pastimes, fireworks and sheep? Or a prologue where a young girl counts 100 stars? Or why the figures 1 to 100 can each in turn be found from scene to scene? As ever with Greenaway, death and decay are part and parcel of his arcane, baroque fantasies, but it’s never been so enjoyable figuring out the rules of his particular game.

eXistenZ (1999)

Director: David Cronenberg

eXistenZ (1999)

Of all the 1990s movies where characters themselves are inserted inside a game with potentially fatal consequences (David Fincher’s The Game, 1997; Vincenzo Natali’s Cube, 1997), David Cronenberg was, unsurprisingly, the most prescient. Jacking into his habitual fascinations of how technology can fuse with biology, he sets Jennifer Jason Leigh’s immersive game designer on the run inside her own creation, pursued by assassins who may or may not be the harmless simulations she initially created.

Much of Cronenberg’s blackly comical genre kicks derive from constantly upending which reality is which and daring audiences to keep up. Meanwhile he delights in organic weaponry and sensual, pulsing game controllers that plug into people like umbilical cords. And as a millennial premonition of our addiction to online existence and wilful collapsing of the real and the virtual, well, disconnect for a moment and look around you. Long live the New Flesh, 2.0!

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

Director: David Lynch

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

Bar rare excursions into linear stories adapted from external sources (The Elephant Man, Dune, The Straight Story), almost any of David Lynch’s surreal dispatches from his teeming subconscious could feature here. So, although the likes of Lost Highway or Inland Empire are perhaps even trickier to textually parse, let’s go for the film that features a literal mystery box; one that bifurcates his dreamy, noir-esque Hollywood fantasy and sends it hurtling into a rancid waking nightmare.

Numerous folk claim to have deciphered the ‘meaning’ of one of the 21st century’s greatest films, and yes, a doppelgänger logic can be applied to Naomi Watts and Laura Harring’s amateur detective and desperate amnesiac alter egos. But you don’t return to this singular filmmaker for rational explanations. The real mystery is how he casts a spell of dread-soaked wonder to which we willingly succumb, over and over. In dreams, David Lynch walks with you.

Certified Copy (2010)

Director: Abbas Kiarostami

Certified Copy (2010)

An English academic meets a French antiques shop owner in Tuscany. The academic is touring his latest book, which examines cultural and aesthetic authenticity. Lengthy, leisurely takes show them spending the day together, in a car, in a café, and wandering lustrous Italian landscapes. For two people who’ve only just met, the verbal jousting and emotional jostling seems a little odd. But then, is that who they really are? Or are they playing roles?

Master director Abbas Kiarostami’s first feature outside his native Iran is an endlessly fluctuating and fascinating relationship drama that refuses to commit to a definitive coupling. Imagine Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight set in Marienbad (see above), and that might give you a flavour of the tenor here, with an award-winning Juliette Binoche and opera star/debut actor William Shimell beautifully dovetailing. For all Kiarostami’s speculation on reproductions and copies, he creates yet another dazzling original.

BFI Player logo

Discover award-winning independent British and international cinema

Free for 14 days, then £4.99/month or £49/year.

Try for free