Queen to Play

On the island of Corsica, Helene (Sondrine Bonnaire) lives a modest life with her dockworker husband and rebellious teenage daughter. Since her marriage, she’s never been off the island. She works full-time as a chambermaid at the local tourist hotel and once a week she travels on a bus to clean the home of a reclusive expat American professor, Dr. Kroger (Kevin Kline).

While cleaning one of the hotel rooms, Helene observes the American guests playing chess on the outside balcony. The man, Dominc Gold, and the woman, Jennifer Beals, seem to be charging the board game with sexual energy, contemplating strategies, jousting with one another, trying to win the game without losing their foreplay.

Fascinated, Helene buys a chess set and tries to get her husband to play with her. For a woman who has no status and little respect from life, Helene is enchanted to find out that the most powerful piece on the board is the queen. Alas, her husband won’t play the game–he prefers backgammon because all the pieces move the same way. Helene’s dream of sexy chess disappears, just as her new nightgown goes unnoticed.

But as every devout chess player knows, once you let the game into your head, you can’t get rid of it. Late at night, Helene plays by herself, twisting the board to take turns with both black and white pieces, devouring the instruction booklet. She thinks about chess all the time, sees the pieces move in her head, plays the game by hopping on the black and white tiles on the hotel floor. In the hands of first-time director Caroline Bottaro, the chessboard comes alive–and takes Helene on a glorious and transcendent journey.

One day at Dr. Kroger’s house, he finds Helene touching his chess set. He’s a cold-hearted curmudgeon, insulting, dismissive, a sexist and an elitist. Ordinarily you’d hate such a guy, but here he’s played by Kevin Kline in a gorgeous beard, so you know Dr. Kroger will somehow turn out to be a nice guy. Helene suspects this truth already, so she impulsively asks him to play chess with her. He refuses. She insists, offering to clean his house for free if he will do so. They agree to meet on Tuesday afternoons. He’s wary, she’s excited.

And so starts a relationship, where Helene and Dr. Kroger, worlds apart in life, come to enjoy the same universe on the chess board. Never touching and barely looking at one another, they grow intimate on opposite sides of the chess table. The scenes are exhilarating, where the actors speak volumes, in silence, just the barest movement of their hands and eyes.

Over the many months, Dr. Kroger comes to realize that, unlike he who is a skilled player but has no genius about the game, Helene is a natural chess savant. He has nothing more to teach her. He urges her to enter the local chess tournament. She’s belittled by the dominating male players, but calls on all of Dr. Kroger’s harsh lessons to get her through. Most importantly, Helene has embraced the most important lesson of the game–the queen is always the strongest piece on the board. To the astonishment of all the game’s observers, including her husband and daughter and her hairdresser, Helene wins the tournament. She feels her life has reached its zenith, until Dr. Kroger tells her about the next tournament — in Paris.

If you play chess, you’ll love this movie. If you don’t play chess, you’ll like it a lot. You could wait until Queen for Play comes out on DVD, but I urge you to see it in the theatre, to revel in the subtlety and sophistication of the performances of Bonnaire and Kline.

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