At first glance, Queen To Play appears to be a simple tale of a woman who finds her passion in the game of Chess. But don’t be fooled. It is one of those small, but eloquent films that the French are so rightly famous for. Its cast of characters is small, its dialogue, sparse, and its settings, unremarkable, save for a few wistfully idyllic bicycle rides through the Corsican countryside, a far off ocean view or two, and a balcony setting that is, by its very nature, romantic.
At its core, this 2009 film is about one woman’s search for meaning in her life― to feel as if she has something to offer, and to have that something be acknowledged, as much by herself, as by others. And while it is far from the traditional boy-meets-girl kind of love story, it is very much about love: the love between a husband and wife, mother and daughter, and teacher and student. It is also about learning to love one’s self, and the love one feels for something rather than someone, be it art, music, sports, literature, science, history, or in this case, Chess.
As the film opens, Hélène (our heroine) is getting ready to leave for work. Pleasant but plain looking, her hair in a bun, her face devoid of make-up save for a bit of lipstick, she is a face in the crowd.
As portrayed by Sandrine Bonnaire, Hélène is a woman who observes life, rather than living it. She watches as a female co-worker steals a kiss from her lover, then listens as the young woman reveals her plans to leave the island in search of something more. It is during this brief but telling conversation that we learn that once upon a time Hélène had much the same plans and dreams, leaving her home, friends and family in exchange for the promise of a better life.
But as we see, that promise has gone unfulfilled. Easing into middle age, her life has been far from easy. As a chambermaid at a small but elegant island retreat, she works where others play. Her day involves a series of mundane routines: the washing and ironing of the hotel’s linens, the making of beds, replacing of towels, and removing of room service trays, stains, crumbs, personal items and other left-behinds, so that each room is in pristine condition by check-in.
At quitting time she does not quit, taking the bus to her second job as housekeeper for the somewhat eccentric and reclusive Dr. Kröger (Kevin Kline), a sixty-something American expatriate who is hard pressed to remember her name, even though she has, it appears, been in his service for some time.
If Hélène is unfulfilled at work, she receives little-to-no validation at home. Her husband Ange (Francis Renaud), is a good looking but inattentive partner, who thinks nothing of spending a night or two each week playing backgammon with his friend Jacky, while being all but oblivious to his wife’s needs and desires. When he confides that work is slow and getting slower, she asks how they will manage if he is laid off. “We’ll see” he says, shifting the onus onto her shoulders. “Did you ask your Yankee for a raise?”
She hasn’t, but does—haltingly, and Kröger is quick to pick up on her insecurities.
Hélène: I wanted to ask –
Hélène: It’s about my—
Kröger: —about your..?
Hélène: Salary. My husband thinks—
Kröger: Does he think for you?
Hélène: No, I think so too.
Kröger: Yes - - ?
Hélène: You could give me a raise: Ten euros.
But clearly, she has, over time, put Ange’s thoughts, desires, and wishes before her own.
In the end, “the Yankee” comes through, though it is doubtful that the extra money will offset the couple’s financial woes. Unlike their teenage daughter (Alexandra Gentil), who is ashamed of their social status, they accept the fact that they are members of the working poor, and destined to stay that way.
And then one day, the chambermaid enters an American couple’s room to straighten up, only to find that the guests are still in residence. Startled, she turns to leave, but the couple, flirtatiously playing a game of Chess on the balcony, encourages her to stay.
From her place by their unmade bed, Hélène finds herself transfixed, as the two engage in what might be termed intellectual foreplay over a Chessboard. She (Jennifer Beals), in her negligee, he, (Dominic Gould), divinely handsome in his linen-white shirt and slacks, do a delicate “dance” that is as intimate as if they were physically making love.
Later, the woman asks the voyeur, “Do you play?”— a question of Chess, with underlying undertones. Hélène responds with a quiet, almost bashful, “No”, but her fascination with the game, its pieces, process, power and sensuality is instantaneous. Soon, she will find herself, as she finds herself consumed by it.
But to play Chess, one has to have a Chessboard and pieces, and money is tight. Realizing that this is not the time to buy something for herself, let alone something frivolous, she, like the man who buys his wife a big-screen TV for their anniversary so that he can watch the Super Bowl, buys her husband an electronic Chess set for his birthday. His displeasure is obvious.
Ange: What’s this?
Hélène: An electronic Chess set.
Ange: So, I see. What’s it for?
Helene: Playing Chess, I’d say.
Ange: But I can’t play.
Hélène: You can learn. It’s a change from Backgammon.
Ange: Who am I supposed to play with?
Hélène: I don’t know—with me (pregnant pause), or on your own—It's a game you can play on your own.
Ange: On my own?
Bewildered, disappointed and annoyed, Ange sets the game aside, with a barely audible "thank you", and the telling, “I hope it didn’t cost too much.”
But whatever the cost, Hélène is hooked, and as soon as the birthday boy has fallen asleep, she rises from their bed, reclaims the set, and submerges herself in the rule book, examining the pieces and finding her way around the Chessboard.
Within days, fascination has turned into obsession, though it soon becomes apparent that if she is to progress, she will need both a partner and teacher. With her husband both unwilling and unable to fill the bill, she sets out to find someone who can.
She finds that someone in Kröger. His initial reluctance is soothed by her offer to forgo her wages in exchange for a daily game of Chess. Soon, any reservations he may have had are replaced by the realization that Hélène has a real gift for the game: a gift that goes well beyond his own level of play. Mentor and cheerleader, the doctor encourages her to enter a local competition: a step that will cause her to reach higher, dig deeper, and potentially change the course of her life.
But change seldom comes without consequence. Her work suffers, and she seems distracted at home, no longer willing to put everything and everyone else first. And as is so often the case, those who initially cheer her on begin to feel threatened as her role in their lives begins to change. Some reactions are subtle, others more overt. And though, after a few initial missteps Ange tries to be supportive, it’s clear that he is uncomfortable with his wife’s newly found confidence. Even Hélène is torn, wondering if the prize was worth the price. “I liked it better before I didn’t question everything.”
Her angst is apparent when discussing Martin Eden (Jack London’s semi-autobiographical novel) with her daughter, Lisa. Though the circumstances are very different, the similarities between the hero’s life and her own are palpable, and in talking about him, Hélène is really talking about herself. “Have you read it?” She asks.
Lisa: It made me cry. Beautiful—The sailor who became a writer.
Hélène: You mean the writer who should have stayed a sailor.
Lisa: Why do you say that?
Hélène: Because he was unhappy. Because he realizes it wasn’t worth the effort, and he doesn’t belong anywhere.
Lisa: Yes, but he did it. If he’s an outsider, it’s because he's better than those he tried to impress. impress.
Hélène: Why be better if you don’t do anything with it?
And there’s the rub.
As Hélène and her family begin to sort it all out, the reclusive doctor is doing some sorting of his own. His secrets, fears, failing health, longings and ambitions make up a bittersweet subplot that is skillfully unraveled by the ever-fascinating Kline.
But it is Hélène’s relationships that are front and center here, and ultimately, the film is not as much about Chess, or class, as it is about love, passion and self worth. I tend to disagree with writer/director Caroline Bottaro’s feeling that the film would have worked just as well had Hélène’s obsession been with Backgammon or Bridge, as I find the queen’s power in the game, as spelled out by daughter Lisa (“She [the queen] can do anything, go anywhere she likes. She’s stronger than the king.”) an interesting counterpoint to the way Hélène interacts with, and is viewed by her family, friends, employer and co-workers.
In an interview following the release of the film, Bonnaire points out that it isn’t so much the game that initially arouses the chambermaid’s interest, as it is the intimacy - how deeply the American couple appears to love each other– savoring every moment, “falling all over the chess board.” It is an intimacy Hélène yearns for, one―to her astonishment―that remains in tact, even when the woman wins the game.
Originally titled Jouyese,(the feminine form of “player”), and based on Bertina Henrich’s novel La Joueuse d’échecs, Queen To Play is a study in understatement, save for a few flashes of overt symbolism and telepathy. The dialogue is simple, the scenes, short, and the acting, low-key, belying the fact that it took eighteen drafts and five years to get it to the screen.
That simplicity, if you'll pardon the cliché, speaks volumes, for while this is a film about finding your passion, pursuing your dreams and changing your destiny despite your origin, education, or surroundings, it is not Rocky or Breaking Away. This to say that Hélène’s triumphs are not underscored by pulsating trumpets, an over synthesized sound track or the roaring of crowds, and yet, you will find much to cheer about in this small, well put and played film about every day people whose lives while not shaken, are stirred.