* * 1/2 (out of five) Queen to Play. Written by Caroline Bottaro, based on the novel by Bertina Henrichs. Directed by Caroline Bottaro.
There have been a fair number of movies about chess. Watching films like Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993) and The Luzhin Defense (2000), one gets the impression that it is a kind of rarified pursuit—an intellectual puzzle like string theory or composing sonatas for cello and violin.
But in fact, chess is blood-sport. It is visceral. It is a scale for weighing one mind against another, and what it reveals is pitiless and never wrong. People who play it as a mere intellectual pastime, or a joining together in search of truth (or, lord knows, “fun”), rarely rise to the top of the game. That distinction is for people, mostly very smart, desperately insecure men, who derive pleasure from conducting vivisection-by-proxy on the minds of their opponents. David Mamet and Martin Scorsese should be making movies about chess—preferably with Joe Pesci in the lead.
Caroline Bottaro’s Queen to Play (French title: Joueuse, or “The Female Player”) doesn’t get it quite right either, but at least the stakes are high enough. Set on the island of Corsica, it is the story of Hélène (Sandrine Bonnaire), a wife and mother who helps swing the household expenses by moonlighting as a cleaning lady. One day at the hotel, she sees (or more precisely, peeps at) a couple (Jennifer Beals and Dominic Gould) using chess as a kind of elegant foreplay. Hélène, who is dissatisfied with her life with her rube husband (the very Kevin Bacon-esque Francis Renard) and self-absorbed daughter (Valérie Lagrange), becomes obsessed with the game, seeing in it the beauty and refinement she is missing. In her quest to improve, she convinces a client, a prickly American professor (Kevin Kline) to spar with her in exchange for free housekeeping. Given how the script eroticizes the game from the outset, where their private sessions lead is not hard to guess.
There’s a lot that is not plausible about Bottaro’s movie. Perhaps things are different in France, but cleaning ladies rarely resemble cinematic beauties like Bonnaire, who broods alluringly, yet has a smile outshining Julia Roberts’. Nor does the film’s half-hearted feminism—no doubt rooted in Bertina Henricks’ novel—cut very deep. (Yes, the queen is the most powerful piece on the board. But the king is still the only indispensible piece, the whole reason for the contest.) Indeed, the entire notion that chess is somehow sexy seems like a mere contrivance. I mean, anything can be eroticized, but there are a lot better candidates for that than a blood-sport like chess. Want a flirty game? Try billiards.
True, the notion of using the game as a window on a deeper, more meaningful existence makes a kind of sense. There’s an intriguingly Bovary-esque quality to Hélène as she struggles to sharpen her game, neglecting the responsibilities of her “real” life, that befits the passion the game can rouse in some people. Bonnaire’s scenes with Kline are chess-matches of a slightly different kind, waged on a board tilted toward him in class and education, toward her in dignity. When, at the end of the movie, they murmur chess moves to each other, playing out a game existing only in their minds together, it is indeed a bona fide sexy moment.
But I’m still holding out for that Martin Scorsese-Joe Pesci chess movie.
© 2011 Nicholas Nicastro