Queen to Play – original title Joueuse – is a little-known French film that is quiet, beautiful and ultimately uplifting. Released in French in 2009, it’s available on Netflix and Amazon Prime. I think you’ll love it. Beware, spoilers ahead.
Sandrine Bonnaire stars as Hélène, a hard working mother and wife who works as a hotel maid and cleans for Mr. Kröger, played by Kevin Kline.
Hélène sees something one day as she’s straightening up in a hotel room that changes her life. She sees, through filmy curtains, an American couple playing chess (Jennifer Beals and Dominic Gould).
The couple look as if they just tumbled out of bed, the woman wears a silk nightgown and just-been-fucked hair. The way they look at each other, touch, smile and react to the end of the game mesmerizes Hélène. It looks a lot like foreplay.
The American woman comes into the room and asks Hélène in halting French if she plays. Hélène answers no, but the wheels are turning. Sandrine Bonnaire is wonderful at thinking. Many scenes in this film have no dialog but are long sequences of chess games. That might sound dull, but it absolutely is not, and the reason is Sandrine Bonnaire’s wonderful face.
After work that evening we meet Hélène’s family. Alexandra Gentil plays Hélène’s daughter Lisa. Francis Renaud plays her husband Ange. We learn that money is tight and that Ange wants Hélène to ask her Yankee for a raise.
The Yankee, played by Kevin Kline, is a reclusive and not very healthy character that most of the townspeople don’t understand. He questions Hélène when she asks for more money, but he gives it to her.
Next day, the American couple leave the hotel. Hélène finds the silk nightgown discarded between the sheets. She could have run quickly and returned it to the American woman, but she does not. She keeps it. It becomes an important symbol in the story as she attempts to find in a chess board whatever spark it was she saw between the Americans.
Hélène buys her husband an electronic chess set for his birthday. He doesn’t enjoy learning chess, but she becomes completely obsessed with it. She stays up all night, wearing the silk nightgown, teaching herself with the electronic game. Everything she sees looks like a chess board. She cannot attend to conversations going on around her because she’s thinking about chess. After she’s learned everything she can from the electronic game, she screws up her courage and asks Mr. Kröger to play with her and help her learn.
Hélène neglects her family, her job, her life. Nothing matters but chess. This leads to jealousy from her husband, who follows her to Kröger’s where he peeks through the window and sees them playing chess.
There’s fighting at home and Hélène throws the chess set in the trash, calls Kröger and quits her job, says she won’t be back to play chess either, and tries to go about her life as it once was.
But she can’t. Events keep reminding her that she’s giving up a dream. Her family recognizes that she’s miserable and they actually encourage her to play chess again. She goes back to Kröger’s as if nothing had happened, and they continue to play.
Finally Kröger suggests she’s ready to enter a tournament. After much self-doubt and sexist treatment, she does enter. And she wins. This is a small local tournament, but it gives her the right to go to Paris for a bigger one.
Winning also earns Hélène a lot of much-delayed respect from her family and friends for what she has been so obsessed with doing.
Hélène becomes a bit famous in her home town. She gets interviewed in the paper. As a photographer is snapping her photo, her muse, the American woman, drifts across her consciousness with a smile.
Hélène and Kröger celebrate with a glass of champagne. What follows is a scene in which they play a game of mental chess, all in their heads, calling out moves to each other as they sit close together in Kröger’s house. It’s one of the most erotic things I’ve ever seen in a movie. Sexy mental chess sounds crazy, but it truly is so, so erotic.
The final scene of the movie is Hélène on a boat headed for Paris. Before that, we had seen Hélène standing by the ocean, shouting in triumph. When I left the theater, I felt like doing the same thing in her honor. I don’t know when a movie has ever made me feel so absolutely wonderful about a woman’s accomplishments as this one did.
Queen to Play was filmed in Corsica in summer, every outdoor vista is picture postcard perfect. Caroline Bottaro wrote and directed the film.