Director: Caroline Bottaro
Writers: Caroline Bottaro (screenplay), Bertina Henrichs (novel)
Stars: Sandrine Bonnaire, Kevin Kline, Francis Renaud
If you’re afraid to make a commitment to what gives you pleasure
See Queen to Play and feel inspired to get in the game
Because if you don’t risk, you lose – and for sure, you can’t win.
Let the unexpected reign. I love a story in which an ordinary person living an ordinary life comes upon an irresistible urge. Against all odds, such a person plunges forward. In the face of setbacks, they persist. Following an invisible line of knowing not-knowing, they work hard. They pick their way along a vein of dormant desire long ago left aside for practical reasons. In Queen to Play, more delightfully called Joyeus in French which is the feminine form for player, a forty-ish cleaning woman making a bed in a hotel room can’t take her eyes off a couple on the balcony. They’re playing chess. Even after the woman wins, they continue laughing and loving. The woman stands up, moves away from the table to stand at the railing. The man follows, attentive and affectionate. A subtle expression of surprise passes Helene’s eyes. Such a reaction goes against her expectation. The two women exchange looks as if each knows what the other is thinking. How can a woman winning a game against her man enhance her attractiveness, spur greater pleasure and intimacy? It’s a notable moment for Helene. She buys a chess set and gives it to her husband as a gift.
So much said in such a small gesture. Helene wants to feel beautiful, smart and well loved all in one swoop. She longs to open a closed door of passion. Her husband, however, simply shrugs his shoulders. Chess holds no interest for him. Helene is left on her own to discover where the desire will take her. Never before has she been challenged to go beyond being a wife and mother, beyond being married. What will it mean to follow the desire? Natural next phases of a life are often triggered by a moment of intense emotion. It’s time for Helene to learn more about herself.
In a move quite out of character for her, she asks a reclusive ex-pat, Dr. Kroger, for whom she cleans house to teach her to play. Kroger reluctantly agrees and slowly gets drawn into her determined effort. First she surprises him by having a knack for chess. Then she surprises him by beating him. Then the relationship falters, shifts, starts, stalls and withstands reversals. He makes mistakes. He’s had a bad experience failing his deceased wife in her creative efforts to be a painter. Helene withdraws. She’s hurt by his apparent duplicity, admiring her in private and dismissing her as a cleaning woman in a letter of recommendation to play in a public tournament. She has to insist, demand his respect. That’s another step out of character for her.
He makes her accountable for her own gift. As he reveals himself to her, he ventures, “No one can save another person.” But then he goes on, telling her, “You have something that can’t be taught, not by another person, not in a class, not in a school.” She requires a partner to make the discovery of her passion but her gift is not contained, limited or defined by partnership.
As she goes public with her chess playing, Helene begins to shine. She wins tournaments, triumphs over the best local players and gains an opportunity to leave Corsica and go to Paris. Not surprisingly, her opportunities threaten to dim her marriage. It takes time, takes her out of the house and takes her on her own path where she feels the conflict. She’s a woman bound to the tradition of marriage and loves her husband. For Helene, longtime wife and mother to a teenager, finding her gift as a master chess player is a little like discovering the queen is the strongest piece on a chessboard. It upsets belief.
Helene’s relationship with Kroger, intensely erotic if not sexual, rouses her to a level of intimacy in which she feels equal. She plays a determining role in what happens between them as well as on the board. Intimacy where man and woman respect one another opens an unexpected sense of doing right by the other, challenging stereotypical scenarios. We find ourselves being treated to a view of individual uniqueness that enhances rather that destroys the beauty of a situation.
As Helene steps forward as a first rate chess player, she draws upon the erotic energy of play with Kroger but she falls more in love with her husband than before. She transforms her life and her marriage. Helene’s awakening into full-blown womanhood becomes more than a delicious marshmallow for immediate consumption. She releases Kroger from his guilt and then lifts her marriage as well as her life onto another level. To see a new woman emerge from a game as old as chess…well, it’s a beautiful thing to watch.