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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08/06/01 Film Essay # , , , ,

Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001)

Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001)
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Writers: Alfonso CuarónCarlos Cuarón
Stars: Maribel Verdú, Gael García Bernal, Daniel Giménez Cacho


“Y Tu Mama Tambien throws propriety to the wind. A young Latina woman not only bolts from her role as dutiful wife but takes a swipe at patriarchy as she initiates two young men into a realization of masculinity far beyond macho.”

Well you might ask. What happens when a young, married Latina woman steps away from the yoke of traditional female forbearance of a cheating husband to joyride with two rowdy adolescent males celebrating their last summer of freedom before going off to college? And what accounts for her choice?

As the threesome drive out of Mexico City into the countryside toward a faraway beach, a bricklayer knocked off his bike by an automobile delays traffic. It will be three days before anyone identifies the corpse. It will be three days before we know who Luisa is.

And the true identities of Tenoch and Julio (the suavely naïve Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal), two young men who run into their cousin’s young but older wife, Luisa (a lithe swift talking Maribel Verdu), at a wedding will also not be known for several days. Luisa, driving with determination but without intention to an unknown destination, will accidentally initiate them into sexual complexities they could have lived a lifetime without knowing – and will, no doubt, take a lifetime to unravel.

Tenoch and Julio are best friends. Tenoch comes from a wealthy family of privilege while Julio hopes his brains will give him a ticket to better things. They essentially ignore being from different sides of the track, swearing a blood brother friendship — charlostras. They have a manifesto of loyalty to one another. Julio and Tenoch take pride in their quickie sex lives with steady high school girlfriends who have gone off to Europe for the summer. They compete with each other in masturbating contests in broad daylight on parallel diving boards and share grandiose fantasies of sexual conquests. While attending a wedding together, they get the bright idea of hustling the lovely Luisa, their cousin’s wife who is a few years older. They invite her to take a ride with them to the beach, enticing her with descriptions of a hidden cove called Boca del Cielo that only they know about. They are, of course, making the whole thing up. They have no idea where a hidden cove at an isolated beach might be. At first she just laughs them off. But then, seemingly devastated by a phone call from her husband admitting that he’s having an affair, Luisa calls Julio and says yes, she’ll go. Taken off guard by what they view as a stroke of unexpected good luck, they scramble quickly to borrow a car and figure out what direction to go. Luisa dumps stuff in a bag and they’re off.

On the way, midst much jocular conversation, Luisa again surprises them. She seduces Tenoch. Then, when Julio becomes jealous, she has sex with him as well — casually, in a matter of fact manner, in the back of the car while Tenoch is driving. She exposes how easily each can be seduced, foregoing any pact they’ve made with each other. This completely turns the tables from fun to fury, bringing out the fierce but suppressed side of the competition between them. Luisa asks, point blank, wasn’t this what they both wanted? Wasn’t she just making a fantasy come true? Perhaps. But, her willingness to fulfill the fantasy guts the game between them and, for the first time, they face reality. Confessions flow. Tenoch has slept with Julio’s girlfriend and vice versa – more than once. Whatever fabric of control they created between them is gone. Their ‘charlostra’ contract looks silly; they’ve broken every rule. Now, without the restraint of a pact, their relationship really heats up. Emotions run strong. They physically fight and verbally attack one another. Luisa decides it’s time for her to make some rules and, if they want her to stay with them on the trip, she’ll be the boss.

As the threesome move closer to the beach, illusion and reality begin to merge. They enter another world when their car breaks down and they are thrown on the mercy of people poorer than poor who generously help them. Luisa finds and is given a doll by an old woman that has her name on it. By a fluke, at the end of a road picked more by desperation than decision, they wake up to a curve of sand by the sea beyond their wildest fantasy. Held quiet by beauty without agenda, they’re very far outside the familiar. And the guys are following Luisa’s rules, requiring them to shut up and do what she says. She’s established a different kind of order where truth reigns and secret cravings emerge. Somewhere along the line, Tenoch and Julio realize that things are turning out a lot different than they imagined. Then, an odd little man shows up in a boat, taking them to a restaurant he runs with his wife under a tent where they eat, dance, get drunk and let their emotions run free into the night.

Luisa begins to make love to Tenoch and Julio simultaneously. And then, stepping away from them as mysteriously as she stepped away from her husband, she leaves them. Caught in the heat of passion, Julio and Tenoch continue having sex with each other, finally venting the pent up attraction they’ve felt for one another that’s been submerged beneath a heavy legacy of egoistic competition between men. The next morning Luisa says goodbye to boys who have become men. Tenoch and Julio are left with a reality that has no words. What Luisa has released in them is more startling than revelations about their desire for sex with the same woman, transforming their beliefs about male identity. She pulls back a veil of truth, showing their notions of heterosexuality to be as flimsy as their pact.

On this trip to fantasy land, Luisa blossoms into a woman she could not have known as the good wife. She breaks away from a programmed passivity and deference, awakening two young men to a world of feelings for one another they didn’t know existed and would’ve never known if they had not crossed her path. In a moment of celebration, they may all drink ‘to the clitoris’ but Luisa’s daring comes from another source. She’s close to a destiny that goes beyond the destiny of her sex.

Remember Y Tu’s metaphor — the accidental collision with death as its end where the true identity of the corpse will not to be known until sometime in the future? Y Tu Mama Tambien taps into the ancient Greek myth of Apollo and Daphne showing what happens to men who insist on possessing the essence of female sexuality. They find themselves in an embrace with their own true nature. Tenoch and Julio return to ordinary life, having lost not only their innocence but their illusions of control. Luisa stays behind – as she says, ‘like the surf on the sea’ — on a pristine beach about to be taken over by developers.

On a trip half real and half fantasy, Tenoch, Julio and Luisa make their way through the Mexican countryside to the beach, encountering extreme poverty, military domination and social uncertainty. They see their culture undergoing change, losing an innocence of isolation that may, indeed, require a different kind of man in roles of leadership, married to its women and fathering its children. But will Tenoch and Julio integrate Luisa’s lesson of men loving men — or will tradition be too strong?

None of them will meet again. Well, technically, that’s not true. We see Tenoch and Julio say a last goodbye in a diner where we learn of Luisa’s fate – one she knew all along while we waited in the dark for a few hours to discover who she was.

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