Thursday, June 30, 2011
Movie review: Queen to Play (Joueuse)
Hélène is chessing around on her husband. (Is that the same as cheating?)
Filmed amidst the natural beauty of sun-dappled Corsica, Queen to Play (Joueuse) — the French-language (with English subtitles) feature film directing debut of Caroline Bottaro — is an uplifting, inspirational, and surprisingly thrilling drama about a family eking out a living in a vacationers' paradise on working folks' wages.
It's also a film about obsession, of the sort with the potential to drive a family apart. The focus of this obsession is the film's offbeat kicker: it's chess.
Lovely and expressive Sandrine Bonnaire stars as Hélène, a working mom who bikes every morning to her job in housekeeper at an exclusive seaside resort hotel. While changing the linens one morning for a vacationing American couple (played by Dominic Gould and Jennifer Beals), she observes them playing chess out on the patio, while breakfasting on croissants and coffee. They're disarmingly en dishabille, he in loosely-buttoned shirt and she in negligee. The teasing manner in which they move their pieces about the board — accompanied by seductive smiles and knowing glances — imbues their informal match with an air of foreplay. Furthermore, the woman seems to be dominating the play.
Hélène is clearly fascinated by what seems to have been her first exposure to the Game of Kings, and she carries that fascination into her home life. For his birthday, she gives her husband (Francis Renaud, as Ange) — a practical-minded dockworker — a chess set. Hélène certainly seems excited when he unwraps the present, but her husband — along with their teenage daughter Lisa (Alexandra Gentil) and their several invited guests — are confused, and perhaps more than a little astonished. Not only is Ange unfamiliar with the game, but when would he have time to play it?
(It should be noted that marital relations between Hélène and Ange have been shown to be at a nadir; the implication being that Hélène may be attempting to introduce this potentially sensual pastime into their relationship. But chess as foreplay isn't for everyone, it seems...)
Heedless of her husband's disinterest, Hélène buys a book on chess strategy and begins staying up late at night to play out sample games on her cheap Milton Bradley-style board. For the first time in anyone's memory, she begins arriving late to her job at the hotel. She declines her boss' requests for short-notice overtime shifts. When she discovers that Kröger (Kevin Kline, in his French-speaking debut), the aloof and reclusive widower for whom she cleans house on a weekly basis, was once an accomplished chess player, she inveigles herself into his better graces until he reluctantly agrees to play with her.
Hélène's weekly sessions with Kröger prove risky, given that he has both a low tolerance for frivolity (which he assumes her interest in chess to be) and a reputation as a seducer of local women. To overcome the first difficulty, Hélène will have to demonstrate her sincere interest in learning the game; to defuse the appearance of the second, she must either keep her more-frequent visits to the Kröger estate a secret, or disguise them as some sort of expanded housekeeping duties.
Anticipating her matches with Kröger makes Hélène's suddenly tedious workday routine more bearable. Their across-the-board trysts, while purely platonic, take on the fervor of an affair; their growing mutual respect and enthusiasm results in an emotional blossoming for both of them.
Ange goes from anger and suspicion at his wife's sudden late evening absences, to a touching, selfless supportiveness once he comes to realize how much her new passion means to her well-being. When Kröger determines that his dedicated pupil has surpassed his ability to teach her, he insists that she enter a regional tournament — which sets up the story for its smile-inducing and satisfyingly bittersweet ending.
Regardless of the fact that there's nothing physical about their relationship, it's clear that Hélène and Kröger do, in fact, become emotionally attached, in a way that is every bit as intense as the kind of devotion that lovers feel. During one of their final meetings, they sit side-by-side, gazing into each others' eyes, engaging in a game of "ghost chess" — announcing their moves upon an imaginary chessboard verbally, after the fashion of whispered endearments. They're indulging in an affair of the mind.
Which begs the question: could this be construed as a form of cheating?
CHESSISM #1: "Rules are less important than exceptions."
CHESSISM #2: "Better to play a lousy plan logically than no plan at all."
CHESSISM #3: "The threat is always stronger than the execution."
CHESSISM #4: "When you take a risk, you may lose. When you don't take a risk, you always lose."