Monday, May 5, 2014

Queen to Play

Queen to Play is a 2009 movie about a cleaning lady whose humble middle-aged life is transformed by her discovering she has a passion and a talent for chess. Set on the beautiful island of Corsica, the drudgery and isolation of Hélène, played by Sandrine Bonnaire, seem more pronounced among the tourists and the wealthy American expatriate widower, Dr. Kröger, played by Kevin Kline. Hélène has a husband, a daughter, and a small group of friends, but they seem too caught up in their own lives to notice how Hélène is changing, except to the extent that her chess lessons with Dr. Kröger resemble an affair. It seems to have been Caroline Bottaro's directorial debut. It found me on Netflix.

I really enjoyed this movie, especially how they get chess obsession right, without going too far into dysfunctional mental pathology like Nabokov's The Defense. Hélène stays up late into the wee hours of the morning sparring with her chess computer and begins to see chess in a checkered patio at work, on the tablecloth while dining, and even on her sink tiles while she brushes her teeth. In a subtle and sophisticated way that would be hard for chess illiterate viewers to understand, the movie captures the fun and passion of chess. The best part is the dialog between Hélène and Kröger which rings true with my chess struggles. There's even a cameo by Jennifer Beals as a mysterious earthly woman, but who could also be interpreted as Caissa herself.

Normally, I dislike foreign films since I feel something important is getting lost in the translation, but I much prefer subtitles to voice dubbing since the voice tone conveys so much of the actor's emotion. I am especially prejudiced against French films since the crazy ending of The Hairdresser's Husband gave me the impression that French artistic choices are too outlandish. But chess obsession being a cross-cultural language perhaps made the film even more charming than an American production could have been for me. The original title of the movie in French was Joueuse (joo-EZ) meaning female player. I now know that the French work for chess, échecs, is pronounced AY-shek, and checkmate or échec et mat, is pronounced SHEK-y-mot in French. I transcribed a bunch of the dialog, but in the end it would totally spoil the movie, so here are a couple of the less spoilery quotes.

Kröger: Rules are less important than exceptions in chess. Breaking rules at a timely moment, that's what you have to do. Do you understand?
Hélène: Not really, no.
Kröger: [chuckles] Neither do I.

Kröger: You ask too many questions. It's only a game. So play. Be yourself and enjoy it.

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