16/01/12 Film Essay # , , , ,

Queen to Play (2011)

Queen to Play (2011)
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.

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15/11/11 Film Essay # , , , ,

The Hedgehog (2009)

The Hedgehog (2009)
Director: Mona Achache
Writers: Mona Achache (screenplay), Muriel Barbery (novel)
Stars: Josiane Balasko, Garance Le Guillermic, Togo Igawa


IF you’re drawn to the elegance of mystery and surprise,
SEE The Hedgehog, a film made faithfully if not as fully to the book.
BECAUSE art is provocative, secrets delicious, death prickly.

What a beginning. A superbly talented eleven-year-old, Paloma Josse, is planning her own death. In spite of her prestigious good fortune of having been born to wealth and endowed with prodigious creative intelligence, Paloma cannot imagine life being worth living once she emerges from childhood. As we watch her draw a calendar on her bedroom wall and mark the days before she will die on her twelfth birthday, we’re brought to the brink of a consciousness we mostly keep secret. Without feeling significant to someone who matters in our own estimation, the meaning of life eludes us.

Paloma’s sense of herself as a goldfish living an invisible life going round and round circling a small glass fishbowl exquisitely parallels her self-appointed role as cool observer in her family pointing a video camera at their everyday life and proving to all of us that they’re living trivial lives. She sees herself destined to repeat a senseless life, captured in a paralyzing system of family beliefs. That is, until an accident of good fortune – the death of an elderly tenant in her building releases an apartment – and brings a stranger into their midst. His presence breaks the stultifying pattern enforced by her family’s class and brings about an unexpected change.

Mr. Kakuro Ozu, an elegant Asian man of no particular identity but a man of particular sensitivity, moves into the empty apartment in Paloma’s building. He seems blind to formalities of age and class, awake to tender allusions of thought and feeling lying behind glazed eyes, intrigued by closed doors. Another order of connection exists for Mr. Ozu. One C.G. Jung called synchronicity, a reference to a hidden causality of events not to be ignored but not readily revealed. Comments made in ordinary conversation are noted by Mr. Ozu as signs of an inner life active and well. And he’s quick to note a kindred spirit regardless of outer appearance. A moment of recognition signifies a bonding fated to pierce veils of detachment.

When Mr. Kakuro Ozu introduces himself to Renee Michel, the superintendent of the building, he asks her about who lives in the building. She answers simply, implying it’s not her business to say. “They’re all happy. Happy families are all alike”. To which Kakura answers, “…and every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. The quote from Anna Karenina spurs a knowing look between the fine gentleman and the frumpy super. They’ve met beyond the divides established by class in the building.

When Paloma accidentally catches a ride in the elevator with Mr. Ozu, they strike up a conversation and she discloses a conclusion she’s made from observations of the super. She wagers the overweight frumpy Renee hides, like a prickly hedgehog, a refined interior spirit. Mr. Ozu nods in agreement. A bit alarmed at being taken seriously by a grown up, Paloma feels her invisibility threatened. She retreats to her room where she advances her plan to commit suicide by experimenting on the family fish with her mother’s medication.

The goldfish turns belly up in the fishbowl, for all intents and purposes dead, and Paloma flushes it down the toilet. However, the fish magically reappears in Renee’s toilet downstairs. The fish becomes a metaphor for revival from heavy sedation that points toward a different ending for Paloma. Coming into the consciousness of death, as all pre-pubescent children must, contains an awakening. The individual life must become meaningful to the one who’s living it.

And then another closed door opens. Delicate exchanges between the intriguing, silver-haired Kakuro and the reclusive, mindful-of-her-place Renee unfold over the next few weeks. Each day, as surely as Paloma’s finely drawn strokes of ink complete a day on her calendar marking time until her birthday and her death, a relationship between Kakuro and Renee develops. More lives than one are in for a surprise ending.

Not many films attempt the reach of The Hedgehog to reflect the presence of a higher order of synchronicity in our lives. The clashing reality of Paloma’s eleven-year-old proclamation, stated with such flat candor in the early part of the film, addresses the proverbial question about how she could take her life. “Death itself is not the point,” Paloma repeats, “it’s what we’re doing when we die that matters.” The film’s ending provides a jolt of transformative emotion only readers of the book upon which the film is based could anticipate. It clearly makes her point but leaves the viewer in a quandary.

Embedded in The Hedgehog’s unexpected ending is an opportunity to leap across an abyss, feel connected beyond everyday estrangement. In the end, Paloma discovers a secret that wakes her from somnambulant path toward death. The older man and woman in The Hedgehog, Kakuro and Renee, discover feelings they were sure were gone forever. Paloma discovers feelings she didn’t know existed. And we, the film’s lucky audience, discover a feeling akin to the bittersweet pleasure of chocolate melting and simultaneously disappearing in our mouths. Even transient moments of feeling trump intellectual deductions of meaninglessness. But, that said, you may argue for a different ending.

Or we may greet across the room, nodding knowing looks of recognition. Namaste. The eyes of our souls meeting and helping us get through the night when we can’t stand it that there’s no getting around the end.

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