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Hélène does not feel trapped by her realities. She has no desire to break free from her domestically-centered life or her chambermaid job. She just wants some stimulation, a little inspiration, which leads to her love affair with the game of chess.
“Queen to Play” (“Joueuse”), the feature film debut from director/screenwriter Caroline Bottaro, dances with questions about life and contentment and purpose and passion with grace and humor, carried by a bright and honest team of actors.
As a young woman Hélène dreamed of marrying the man she loved and moving to the island of Corsica with him— a dream that came true. She is happy with her working-class husband, her difficult teenage daughter and with the bike that she rides to get to work every day. But, one day, as she was tending to a room at the inn, she watches as an American couple (Jennifer Beals and Dominic Gould) exhibit tenderness and profound adoration for each other while engaged in a chess match.
This dream-like state intrigues Hélène, so she teaches herself how to play chess over several sleepless nights. For the purpose of progress she asks Dr. Kröger (Kevin Kline), an American whose home she cleans, to play with her. The opportunity not only expands her mastery of the game, but expands her relationships, as a very deeply complex one develops between her and her boss-turned-mentor.
The film’s substance comes from a dynamic cast that carries each of their characters with authenticity. Francis Renaud does not portray Hélène’s husband Ange as the prototypically blind, deaf, dumb and angry misogynist husband. He highlights Ange’s humility, his ignorance, his efforts, his fears, his insecurities and his love for Hélène, so that its not so much whether we love him or hate him, but about understanding him and what he means to his wife. Alexandra Gentil is also vibrant as an immature and bratty teenager, who goes from being ashamed of working-class status to being a cheerleader for her mother.
Bonnaire and Kline are effortlessly engaging, charged and stirring throughout. Yet, this captivating dynamic is all-together slightly scathed by cluttered context. Their energy is enough, but while we’re considering all factors and circumstances that can energy can escape the audience. In the background there is the death of Kröger’s wife and the role he played in it, his solitude, his attraction to and affection for Hélène and his own sickness.
The authenticity of the film’s spirit is also sometimes compromised by the inconsistent fantasy elements injected into “Queen to Play.” Still, there is a lot of honesty and hope to enjoy, along with a few very good performances.
Sanela Djokovic is a writer living in the Bronx
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