It’s a long time since I’ve blogged something chessy – so here goes… time is tight! I don’t even have enough time to play a proper chess game. Luckily, it’s almost Easter Hols and then I might have a few spare hours to play a game or two. I do miss playing chess though! I’ve come across this movie-article and thought to share it with you. The movies can’t go without chess! It’s Spring and trees around us are almost covered in blossoms. This flower-pic was taken in August last year. I hate these bees we have here, they are surely not friendly and look quite scary.
In ‘Queen to Play’ Sandrine Bonnaire plays a chambermaid empowered by playing chess.
Chess as a Slow Dance of Seduction
By STEPHEN HOLDEN
Published: March 31, 2011
Caroline Bottaro’s tangy comic bonbon, “Queen to Play,” plucks the game of chess out of the metaphorical realm of spy thrillers and reimagines it as a fable about relationships and upward mobility. Adapted from Bertina Henrichs’s novel “The Chess Player,” this slight but captivating movie (Ms. Bottaro’s directorial debut) compares the strategies of chess to the erotic maneuvers in a flirtatious pas de deux that may be more satisfying than actual sex. At the same time, a woman’s winning the game symbolizes female empowerment in a man’s world and ascent from working-class drudgery to the bourgeoisie.
Hélène (Sandrine Bonnaire), the movie’s sly, middle-aged Cinderella, is an attractive chambermaid at a luxury hotel in Corsica. While going about her chores, she observes a chess game being played by a sexy American couple (Jennifer Beals and Dominic Gould) on the balcony of their suite. Stealthy moves accompanied by insinuating eye contact culminate with the woman’s defeating the man and flashing Hélène a smile of conspiratorial glee.
Hélène takes the hint, and at a birthday party for her husband, a handsome dockworker named Ange (Francis Renaud), she presents him with an electronic chess set in the hopes of reigniting the spark in their marriage. Ange is mystified and vaguely annoyed by the gift. When he expresses no interest in learning the game, Hélène begins teaching herself to play and quickly becomes obsessed.
“Queen to Play” is a lighthearted, grown-up fairy tale in which chess consumes Hélène’s imagination and transforms her life. As she mops a black-and-white checkered floor, it becomes a surreal dreamscape. At a restaurant she makes chess pieces out of crumbled bread and pushes them around the squares of the red-and-white tablecloth.
The intimate looks exchanged by the characters as they compete for advantage in a game in which the queen is the most powerful piece tell us as much about them as anything they say. Sometimes chess even suggests a mental striptease in which the players shed their defenses as they exchange glances and dare each other to go forward. At other times it conjures a war between the sexes, with Hélène the feminist upstart challenging male dominance.
Avid to learn more, she discovers a chess set in the house of Dr. Kröger (Kevin Kline, in his first entirely French-speaking role), a widowed American professor for whom she works as a part-time housecleaner. She volunteers to clean his place in exchange for weekly chess lessons. A mysterious figure suffering from an unidentified lung ailment, Kröger agrees. When, after only a few lessons, she is regularly beating him, he urges her to enter a local tournament.
In small but significant ways, “Queen to Play” defies expectations. It dangles the possibility of an affair between Hélène and Kröger in games that the film likens to courtship rituals in a classic screwball comedy. But their flirtation is never physically consummated.
Hélène’s relationships with her husband and rebellious teenage daughter, Lisa (Alexandra Gentil), undergo surprising transformations. Ange, initially threatened by Hélène’s passion, which keeps her out late and distracts her from housework, is initially so suspicious that he follows her to a lesson and spies on her. But once he realizes that she has a gift, his jealousy turns to admiration, and the flame of desire is rekindled. Lisa, who is so ashamed and contemptuous of her parents for being “poor” that she refuses to invite boyfriends to the house, becomes her mother’s fervent champion.
Ms. Bonnaire’s Hélène subtly evolves from a harried, resentful domestic wearing a perpetually hurt expression into a woman who discovers her power. Mr. Kline, as the haughty, secretive professor with a kind heart under a prickly exterior gives one of his finest screen performances, executed with minute fluctuations in his body language.
In their most delicious scene Hélène and Kröger play an imaginary game of chess away from the board. Gazing into each other’s eyes, they engage in what has the ring of intellectual pillow talk. Although the conversation is entirely chaste, in the intensity with which they study each other’s signals, they might as well be newlyweds.
QUEEN TO PLAY
Opens on Friday in Manhattan.
Directed by Caroline Bottaro; written by Ms. Bottaro and Caroline Maly, based on the novel “The Chess Player,” by Bertina Henrichs; director of photography, Jean-Claude Larrieu; edited by Tina Baz Le Gal; music by Nicola Piovani; set design by Emmanuel de Chauvigny; costumes by Dorothée Guiraud; produced by Dominique Besneard and Michel Feller; released by Zeitgeist Films. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Sandrine Bonnaire (Hélène), Kevin Kline (Dr. Kröger), Francis Renaud (Ange), Jennifer Beals (the American Woman), Dominic Gould (the American Man), Valérie Lagrange (Maria) and Alexandra Gentil (Lisa).
A version of this review appeared in print on April 1, 2011, on page C8 of the New York edition..
Time is tight – enjoy!